REVIEW: Massachusetts Gothic Conviction Spreads an Epic Story Too Thin
On paper Conviction, the true story of a young man wrongly imprisoned for murder and his sister's 18-year quest to set him free, can't really lose. Director Tony Goldwyn was drawn to the story after his wife spotted it in the papers in 2001; he spent several years developing a film version, bringing on Pamela Gray (Music of the Heart) as screenwriter, Hilary Swank as his star and executive producer, Sin Nombre DP Adriano Goldman and an enviable cast of supporting players. It feels especially unfortunate, considering the firepower Goldwyn brought to the task, that the film's inspiration proved to be its biggest obstacle; the story is so bounteous that Goldwyn can't quite get a grip on it.
Although the 1980 murder at the center of that story opens the film -- the camera approaches a small trailer and finds a gory crime scene inside; a bloodied body is glimpsed -- it quickly becomes incidental to the narrative. A local ne'er-do-well named Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) is initially pulled in for questioning by a fascistic beat cop (Melissa Leo), then remanded into the indulgent, adoring care of his sister Betty Anne (Swank), who seems to have been through this before. A flashback sequence labors to establish the siblings' bond, which was fired by poverty, an absent father, negligent mother, and a shared love of roughhousing. The childhood flashbacks recur, notably to dramatize the separation of Betty Anne and Kenny when they were put into foster care, but rather than anchoring the story they add to its disjointed temporal structure and jarring pace.
As a piece of Massachusetts Gothic (the story is set in the small industrial hub of Ayer, a town whose population was failing throughout the 1980s), Conviction has its moments, and one of the best comes in an early scene that establishes Kenny's persona, if not his personality. He and his girlfriend Brenda (Clea DuVall) bring their toddler Mandy (played as an adult by Ari Graynor) to their local bar (Mandy likes the band), and Kenny cruises the crowd with her in his arms as Brenda, Betty Anne, and her soon-to-be husband Rick (Loren Dean) look on. Pretty soon Kenny's temper has been pricked, and he's handing off the baby to hold a broken bottle to someone's throat; soon after that he's stripping stark naked on stage as the bar -- and his beaming family -- cheers. I can't speak to the accents -- it's all Mayor Quimby to me -- but the potentially garish scene plays with a combination of unruffled verisimilitude and narrative economy that much of the rest of the film lacks. Rockwell is magnetic as the predictably unpredictable hellraiser: Where I grew up, over in the land of Southern Ontario Gothic (that's a real thing, ask Alice Munro), on nights out you could set your watch by the point at which one of three regular offenders would doff his clothes and start streaking the room. A flash of backside meant the party had peaked, and it was probably time to start thinking about going home.
Three years after the fact, Kenny is officially arrested for murder. Railroaded by damning testimony from Brenda and an ex-girlfriend played by Juliette Lewis (typically riveting) and the fact that his blood type matches the killer's, Kenny is sentenced to life in prison. At this point the film loses what rhythm it had, and every scene is blatantly pinned to its orienting function ("I haven't heard from him since we lost the appeal," Swank says in one brief scene, alerting us to the fact that enough time has passed for an appeal to have been filed and lost) or plot value (Betty Anne forgets the fishing trip she planned for her teenaged boys, and promptly loses custody). Having decided to take the analog approach to justice, Betty Anne -- who dropped out of high school -- acquires her GED, gets a bachelor's degree, goes to law school and takes the bar. Remarkable stuff, and yet we don't get a sense of the character's struggle -- Swank is on steely-jawed auto-pilot -- or of time passing. Eighteen years and even Betty Anne's hairstyle doesn't budge; a shoulder-sweeping bob is classic, but come on!
Kenny weathers the time a little worse, or at least a little more noticeably, but since he's constrained to prison visits with Betty Anne, most of his scenes are built around the tension of when the guard will bark at them to stop touching. (Stop touching!) Goldwyn glances at the dramatic possibility of keeping some doubt in the viewer's mind about Kenny's innocence, but can't commit to it as anything more than a weak undercurrent. When DNA testing becomes possible, so too does Kenny's release. Aided by her law school friend Abra (Minnie Driver, frank and fully alive), Betty Anne tries to track down 16-year-old blood evidence. Eventually Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) and his Innocence Project climb on board to try and save Kenny from the retrial the dreaded Martha Coakley is bent on because, as we're told several times, no one likes to admit they were wrong.
Hella wrong, as it turns out. Witnesses recant, DNA results come in, faxes are waved, but it's all taken so long, and the stresses have fallen so awkwardly along the way, that an epic story winds up feeling spread too thin. The storytelling lacks both conviction and comprehension, something confirmed by the elision of a final, crushing detail: Within six months of his release from prison, Kenny Waters was dead, the victim of an accident as random and senseless as his sister's 18 years of devotion were purpose-driven and true.