Thursday, March 3, 2011

New Release Review: Conviction (Tony Goldwyn, 2010)

When I first saw the trailer for Tony Goldwyn's Conviction and saw that the film the tagged as an 'incredible story based on true events', and starred a number of past Oscar winners and nominees, I originally dismissed it as another Oscar baiting story that didn't make the cut this year. I assumed it would be dull, disengaging and noticeably showy of the performances. The film follows Betty-Anne Waters (Hillary Swank), a tough working-class woman and mother of two, who becomes dedicated to righting a wrong. She puts herself through a law degree at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island in order to practice law professionally and subsequently overturn her older brother Kenny's (Sam Rockwell) wrongful murder conviction from 1983. The terribly titled Conviction, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2010, amounted to everything I expected.

While the performances from Swank and Rockwell are quite solid, everything else about this film is completely absent of any flair and never escapes the waters of mediocrity. It's poorly written and directed, and there is nothing imaginative about the way it is shot, edited or scored. Far from exciting or compelling, the plot (which struggled to fill the 107 minute running time) is so thinly constructed that her journey feels like it was made for people with a complete absence of knowledge about the legal system. I don't pretend to know much about law, but most of the legal procedures just seemed implausible. As the film is 'based on a true story', many will already know the inevitable outcome. Betty manages to investigate Kenny's case while completing her degree, and once she is qualified, she tracks down the evidence long believed to have been destroyed, and manages to overturn his conviction by revealing that the DNA from the blood of the perpetrator found at the crime scene didn't match that of her brothers, despite them sharing the same blood type. Betty Anne collaborates with fellow graduate Abra Rice (Minnie Driver) and Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher in a nothing role), the leader of the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to using DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions, to collect the evidence necessary to prove his innocence, and overturn the previous testimonies of corrupt police officer, Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo in an aggravating performance) and Kenny's former lovers (Clea DuVall and Juliette Lewis).

It is not a particularly interesting story, and left in the inexperienced hands of Tony Goldwyn, it is a floundering, plodding ordeal. With the outcome inevitable, it should be the extraordinary journey of Betty Anne, and the emotional self-sacrifices she makes for her sake of her family, that drives the drama. But we rarely see her immersed in her study, and I think there are only two shots of her at the University. All of a sudden she is an attorney. Each new development feels frustratingly convenient,  from the evidence miraculously turning up after several unsuccessful attempts to locate it, to the reversed testimonies of the women without any real pressure. You also question why she is so devoted to Kenny, and this is somewhat successfully explained in a number of poorly structured flashbacks to their childhood, which establishes their bond from a young age. Rockwell gives quite a charismatic performance, but I felt emotionally detached throughout. Swank plays the tough, determined woman well, but much like the entire experience, she is quite dull. Conviction is a difficult film to comment on because it doesn't have anything glaring that makes it an easy target to criticize, but it possesses few good qualities either. It wasn't entertaining, and it didn't present an engaging story I felt compelled to care about. Give it a miss.

My Rating: 2 Stars

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