Screen Rant's Sandy Schaefer Reviews Conviction
Films that belong to the "based on an incredible true story" genre ironically tend to be among the more formulaic and conventional movies out there. Conviction definitely falls into the category of predictable features that were inspired by seemingly impossible real-life events, but works more often than it fails.
Conviction revolves primarily around two individuals, who are played by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank and actor Sam Rockwell. Both thespians are solid in their roles and prevent Conviction from becoming yet another forgettable, overwrought melodrama with Oscars on its mind.
Swank and Rockwell play Betty Anne and Kenny, a pair of siblings whose tumultuous upbringing only strengthened their emotional bond with one another. The first act of Conviction jumps back and forth between its central characters' present (which, in the beginning of the film, is the mid-90s) and different times in their past. It's an interesting narrative design, but one that gets a bit jumbled and almost confusing at times - still, by the time the second act gets underway, Conviction has made it clear just how dedicated this brother and sister are to one another.
Their bond is put to the test in the year 1983 when Kenny is arrested, convicted of a murder that occurred two years earlier, and sentenced to life in prison. Betty Anne holds steadfast to the belief that her brother was wrongly incarcerated and is determined to free him - enough so that she eventually enters law school in order to become a lawyer and prove Kenny's innocence all by herself.
Swank isn't required to do much in the role of Betty Anne besides crying and looking determined, but she lends an air of authenticity to what otherwise could've been a really flat character. Rockwell also delivers an admirable performance as Kenny and is convincing in the role of a genuinely decent man whose frustrations at the injustices he must suffer are only enhanced by the anti-authoritative attitude that has in part defined him since his days as a child.
Minnie Driver does a nice job playing Betty Anne's funny but supportive friend, Abra Rice, as does indie actress Melissa Leo in the role of Nancy Taylor, the police officer whose unscrupulous actions lead to Kenny being sent to prison. Both of these individuals are fairly one-dimensional personalities, but so are most of the film's supporting characters, including Betty Anne's children and ex-husband. Abra's decision to befriend Betty Anne makes enough sense, but Conviction never offers a satisfactory explanation for the way Taylor behaves; she's not so much a fully-rounded character, but more a dramatically-convenient personification of the flawed legal system that is responsible for Kenny's situation.
Conviction is foremost a melodrama and it does not resist from throwing numerous personal obstacles in Betty Anne's way as she attempts to free her brother. She has to deal with the deterioration of her marriage; limitations on the time she can spend with her two sons; the rigorous nature of law school; and Kenny, who believes he will never escape prison and proves that he is not afraid of taking his own life. Moviegoers that find themselves easily irritated by films chock-full with scenes of heavy-handed drama and people crying, well, Conviction isn't for you - especially since, like me, you'll have to listen to a lot of audience members sniffling loudly and drying their eyes the whole time (mind you, sensitive readers, that's nothing to be ashamed of either).
The film has a relatively low-budget aesthetic that compliments the personal tone of the story. Director Tony Goldwyn establishes the different time periods in Conviction well with the use of limited locations and a few choice props (the 9os' era computers are kind of a hoot, in particular). While the makeup department does a nice job of aging Rockwell over the course of his prison stint, which lasts twenty years, Swank's character looks exactly the same in 1983 as she does in the early 2000s - then again, judging by the image of the real Betty Anne and Kenny Waters that is shown at the end of Conviction, that was kind of the case for the actual siblings as well.
Conviction is very much a by-the-numbers drama about a person who, against all reason, fights for a cause that she wholeheartedly believes in - moviegoers will know, beat by beat, where the film is going and how the conclusion will play out, long before the end credits start rolling.
It works well enough, largely for the same reason that Norman Jewison's similar pic, The Hurricane - which starred Denzel Washington as boxer Rubin Carter, who was wrongly imprisoned for over two decades - does: the lead performances are solid and prevent the film from feeling like a Lifetime Original Drama that was given a studio budget to work with.
Check out the theatrical trailer for Conviction below to help you decide if you want to see it: