In a case of truth stranger than fiction filmmaking, Tony Goldwyn’s Conviction might seem ridiculously farfetched. That is, if it weren’t all true.
A film revisiting the tragic incarceration of a Massachusetts man for two decades following the frame-up guilty verdict for a murder he didn’t commit, this devastating drama says a lot less about mistaken identity than a US court system where, as with running for elections, tends to necessitate a hefty price tag. And essentially close its doors to those without money to afford that item called justice.
Not to mention that Walpole Prison lifer Kenny Waters, the second victim in this case in addition to the murdered woman in question, could have potentially been executed before DNA investigation procedures materialized decades later, since he was convicted (though receiving a life sentence without parole) prior to the abolition of the death penalty in Massachusetts in 1984.
Though far from a complete presentation of what transpired in this both terrible and infuriating instance of small town police corruption, Conviction didn’t need to lay out the entire case to more than makes its point. Hilary Swank lives and breathes with a singular fury and passion the role of real life superhero Betty Anne Waters, an Ayer, Massachusetts high school dropout who grew up in a broken family and series of foster homes. When her wayward brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is arrested and convicted in 1983 in the murder of the woman responsible for filing a complaint against him as a teen that sent Kenny away to reform school, Betty Anne resolves to do everything in her power to free him.
And after she encounters with utter frustration but never hopelessness a legal system that ranges from skeptical to indifferent when it comes to defendants with no money, the uneducated working-class barmaid and struggling single mom sees no recourse but to take on the additional burden of becoming a lawyer herself. And work her way through the intricate web of a criminal justice system where economic privilege translates as entitlement and acquittal – count the number of incarcerated millionaires on one hand – by spending the next 18 years acquiring high school, college and law degrees.
Coming up against multiple dead ends, Betty Anne embarks on her own criminal investigation as well, confronting hurdles that include presumably trashed evidence, pressured witnesses and an unlikable, volatile defendant with a bad reputation to begin with but who is certainly not a murderer. And persisting with best friend and colleague Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), until years later when Barry Scheck’s DNA project surfaces, freeing countless lifers and death row inmates along with Kenny.
A thoroughly disturbing and stunningly conceived legal thriller, Conviction does have its weak points while making its case. Including Exhibit A, the determination of local police officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo), obsessed with sending Kenny to prison even if she has to twist a couple of testifying witness arms to do so. Her own motivations remain unclear, as does the out of court condemnation of the Waters mom, herself an overwhelmed single mother without a community support system. These two women seem to kick in as mysterious caricatures, seemingly to avoid giving any impression that the film may weigh in on the feminist side.
Then there’s Hollywood’s own enduring temptation to tamper with presented evidence on the side of a premeditated happy ending. And in this case, amid the uplifting climax, failing to mention that Kenny died six months after his release, fracturing his skull in a freak accident.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
3 1/2 stars