Friday, October 22, 2010
Strong Leads Help Conviction
Swank Convincing, Rockwell Surprising in “Conviction”
By Skip Sheffield
The advance buzz on “Conviction” concerns Hilary Swank as possible Oscar contender, which would make her a three-time Best Actress winner. The real surprise is Sam Rockwell in his strongest screen role to date.
Swank and Rockwell play sister and brother, Betty Anne and Kenny Waters in this truth-based screenplay by Pamela Gray.
Director Tony Goldwyn establishes from the beginning this brother and sister are extremely close, probably out of self-protection due to an absent father and neglectful mother.
It is established that Kenny and Betty Anne were getting into mischief at a very young age. They were no strangers to the local police in their small town of Ayer, Mass.
It is also established that Kenny has a hair-trigger temper that can flare up suddenly regardless of consequences. We see it happen in a bar when Kenny violently threatens a guy who has made a disparaging remark about his young daughter.
In short Kenny is no angel and nobody’s role model, but is he a murderer?
First degree murder is what Kenny was accused and convicted of in 1983, two years after Katharina Brow was discovered murdered in a most horrific manner, with 30 stab wounds to her body.
Kenny had been questioned at the time of the crime, and he had the bad sense to wise off to the police investigator, Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo).
Taylor was the wrong cop to mess with we learn later in the story, with Kenny in prison and Betty Anne obsessively working to get him a new trial.
Like the strong women Swank portrayed in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby,” Betty Anne is a self-made, doggedly determined underdog who got her GED, went to college, and then law school to become a lawyer with just one client: her brother Kenny.
None of this happened overnight. It was 18 years of struggle that cost Betty Anne her marriage and nearly cost the embattled woman her two sons.
In this dramatization Betty is spurred on by her best friend Abra, played by Minnie Driver.
Heroes and villains are drawn quite literally. The former is a lawyer named Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher), who pioneered using DNA testing to disprove convictions. The latter is Nancy Taylor (Leo) and the unseen district attorney Martha Coakley, who was loath to admit a mistake could have been made. Playing a most intriguing coerced false witness is a scarcely recognizable Juliette Lewis.
In the hands of less-skilled actors this could have been just another TV drama, but Swank and Rockwell, both affecting convincing heavy Mass. accents, draw the viewer into what is ultimately story of love transcendent, a sister for brother, against all odds.