POSTED ON NOVEMBER 3, 2010:
Swank's performance might win an Oscar, but Conviction is made with anything but
Sibling Love. Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell star in Conviction. Based on a true story, the film tells the story of Betty Anne Waters (Swank) who gets her degree from law school so she can prove her brother (Rockwell) is innocent of murder.
Actress Hillary Swank seems to have a direct line on her mobile phone to every casting agent in Hollywood when it's time to choose a female lead in an "Oscar" picture. Seemingly every autumn, here comes Swank, re-making herself to look plain, or a male, or a famous person, or any of the multiple roles she's played that reek of the revered little golden statue. She's dabbled in throwaway romantic comedies and action movies (failures), but her main interest as an actress appears leaning toward the serious, prestige, press-garnering type of characters.
This strategy has worked for Swank as she's nabbed two statuettes and a host of other awards for her performances in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby. She's also flamed out in much hyped, but sub-par, films such as Freedom Writers and last year's underwhelming biopic Amelia. Now Swank has made Conviction, an overtly earnest, inspirational, true-story tale that screams out for accolades at an impossible to ignore volume even though it's an unoriginal, ho-hum, predictable melodrama based on real-life events.
There's no debate that the story to Conviction is pretty amazing: Betty Anne Waters (Swank) hasn't even gotten her high school diploma, but decides to get her G.E.D., a college degree, go to law school, pass the bar and become a lawyer. Her older brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is withering away in prison for life on murder charges that don't appear on the up and up. Kenny is her one and only client. Betty Anne is relentless in her devotion to Kenny and it costs her a marriage, relationships with her kids, friendships, but she never wavers in her pursuit to get Kenny out of prison.
The early moments of the film are set around the 1980 arrest of Kenny in Ayer, Mass., when a dogged policewoman (Melissa Leo) fingers him for a brutal murder of an elderly woman. Kenny is an easy target as he's this small town's troublemaker, always being brought in for this or that, getting into bar-fights, raising hell. He's a lovable screw-up -- stabbing an old woman 30 times is something completely different. Two years after his original arrest, he's tried and convicted of the murder and given life without parole. That's when little sister decides to go back to school. It takes her 16 lonely, difficult years to get that law degree and even then it might not be enough to get her brother out of his cell.
After the beginning scenes of the arrest and the too many flashbacks to Kenny and Betty Anne's hardscrabble childhood of vacant, uncaring parents and foster homes, Conviction settles in and gets down to business. And its business is to make the viewer feel an emotional connection (you know, cry damn you!) with Kenny's horrific situation as an innocent man wronged and his sister who sacrifices nearly everything in her life to get his freedom back. Like most of these Hollywood films, it works very hard to make you feel empathy when in this case, the story alone would have been enough to do the trick.
The "based on a true story" tagline is increasingly becoming a talisman of warning for me. These films, whether they are about horses (Secretariat) or football players (The Blind Side) are generally over-the-top melodramas, bent on inspiring as much as telling the "true" story they are claiming to tell. Filmmakers simply cannot be trusted to tell the truth. Exaggerations and fictions are to be expected to up the entertainment for the viewer. Who wants the facts when a few well-placed plot enhancements can assure the masses an uplifting story? Conviction is another in a spate of recent films that lays it on so thick and saccharine it begs for audience tears and applause when it ends.
Another problem with these "true story" dramas is that there is absolutely no suspense in them. None. If you have seen a trailer, the entire story is laid out before your eyes and usually in the proper order just to make things easier. Let's be bluntly honest here: we know before the credits have ended in Conviction that Kenny is going to get out of prison. That's not a spoiler, it's the inevitable finish for films that place all their hopes in the "based on a true story" hook. What the filmmakers leave out from their "true" story is what happens to Kenny six months after he gets out of prison. Google that to get the real kick to the gut that director Tony Goldwyn didn't want to include.
Swank is a good actress, but with all these people that she chooses to play, it gives her a level of calculatedness that is a bit unpleasant and inauthentic. How many times can she do the ultra-serious, scowling, plain without it becoming just as expected and ordinary as the performances as truly awful actors such as Matthew McConaughey? It would help her cause if the film is actually good, but lately, even that hasn't been the case for Swank as she's attached herself to lower quality movies that just don't work.
Conviction will give you exactly what you expect: a story that will tug at the heartstrings about the loyalty between siblings and a woman's sacrifice to prove her brother's innocence. It throws in a little bit of courtroom back and forth, prison action and family drama as it heads to the compulsory scenes of redemption at the end. It's basically a TV-style movie, all dolled up with a Hollywood budget and publicity machine working overtime, trying to garner awards that may or may not come, and an actress who specializes in this sort of thing.
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