Hilary Swank is a respectable actress, and 'Conviction' is a respectable movie. The story of Betty Anne Waters' efforts to free her brother Kenny from wrongful imprisonment, Swank's latest provides her with a character who like so many before her was determined to do something other people said she couldn't, or shouldn't do. But like the majority of the films those characters appeared in, 'Conviction' must be damned with faint praise, the sort of movie that serves as catnip to awards-season voters but eat-your-vegetables stuff to audiences thanks to its "true life" bona fides and execution that gives it the emotional satisfaction of an above-average segment on '60 Minutes.'
Swank plays Betty Anne, a wife and mother of two boys. Flashbacks introduce us to her relationship with Kenny (Sam Rockwell), her older brother, who thanks to a few scrapes with the law during adolescence makes him a suspect as an adult in most of the crimes committed in their Massachusetts hometown. But after a woman is ruthlessly murdered, a local cop named Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) is determined to pin it on Kenny, and succeeds after two years. Despite her own busy life, Betty Anne decides to put herself through school and earn a law degree in order to find the evidence that will set her brother free. But as the years wind on, her persistence starts to waver, especially after Kenny resigns himself to spending the rest of his life behind bars.
In terms of the storytelling, he film provides a few interesting detours and digressions that intensify the dramatic momentum of Betty Anne's saga, but they feel like a byproduct of screenwriting conventions, not the real story. Moreover, even if this isn't meant to be a note for note recreation of events, they could have been integrated into the events of the story more effectively, and certainly more subtly. For example, Kenny offers only vague responses any time he discusses whether or not he actually committed the murder, but it seems unlikely that at some point in almost 20 years of imprisonment, he would have committed to a 'yes' or 'no.'
Meanwhile, there are a number of plot points that are pursued and then dropped, or forgotten because they stopped being useful, and it gives the film a disjointed momentum. The beginning of the film features a ton of flashbacks of Kenny and Betty Anne as children, but there are none after about 40 minutes into the movie. The arresting officer, Nancy Taylor, is pretty obviously a hard ass, but other than one post-arrest confrontation, she disappears entirely from the film. And the central villain in the second half of the film, a politician impeding progress on the case, is never seen at any point, giving the audience no one to root against. Again, many of these moments and interactions may be faithful to what really happened, but remembering that this is a movie and not someone's actual life, these people feel like a series of speed bumps rather than actual persons involved in the case, and don't add demonstrably to the overall effectiveness of the story.
That said, all of the performances are great, especially a brown-toothed Juliette Lewis as one of the key witnesses in Kenny's trial. But Swank's "serious actress" pedigree has started to feel like an albatross around her neck: the roles she chooses might be "important" or rewarding to her, but they're not very interesting to us. Admittedly, one can see why she would want to tell Amelia Earhart's story as she did last year, but she's now taken on several true-life stories in a row, all featuring characters whose defining characteristic is dogged, resilient enthusiasm, which makes them all seem same-y even if she approaches and performs them differently.
Overall, the movie mostly does its job, which is to afford audiences moral outrage following an underdog story before providing them with the soft landing of a happy ending. But like so many of Swank's other movies, 'Conviction' is something to be admired rather than enjoyed, a prestige effort that showcases acting ability, sheds life on an "important" issue, and attracts critical notices and awards nominations more readily than it does champions, or even regular moviegoers.
Whether all of that means a happy ending at the Oscars, of course, remains to be seen. But in the meantime, a Google search of Kenny Waters' name will provide you with the actual details of what happened in the end, and suggesting that it might have been better for the filmmakers to stand by their convictions when adapting this story, rather than just using the double-meaning of the word to bolster the impact of the film's title.