The opening shot of Conviction has two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank lock eyes with Sam Rockwell. In a couple of seconds of screen foreshadowing, we know their story and can guess their history.
He's in prison. She's trying to get him out. They're siblings.
This "based on a true story" tale is about a short-tempered rural Massachusetts punk and his adoring sister, whom he protected when they were kids and who bails him out after his many scrapes with the law.
But not this time. Kenny (Rockwell) has been convicted of murder. Betty Anne (Swank), a high school dropout, tries everything she can think of to get him out. And when she runs out of ideas, she goes to law school.
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Swank was born to play underdogs — rough-hewn working-class women who look at home behind a bar. That's where Abra (Minnie Driver) spies Betty Anne.
"We're gonna be friends," her law school classmate says, "because we're the only ones in class to go through puberty."
Through Kenny's years in prison and Betty Anne's struggle with life, family and law school, this Hollywood "get my brother out of jail" story has genuine edge-of-your-seat appeal. Will witnesses recant? Will DNA testing clear Kenny? Does he even deserve to get out?
Actor-turned-director Tony Goldwyn gives his stellar cast and even the bit players close-ups that let them register emotion, confusion, anger and pain. Melissa Leo is the cop who caught Kenny, Peter Gallagher is the famous Innocence Project lawyer Barry Schenk, Clea DuVall and Juliette Lewis are Kenny's trashy ex-girlfriends, and to a one, they dazzle. Young Ari Graynor stands out as the daughter who has grown up knowing her father's in prison for murder.
Goldwyn, working from Pamela Gray's heart-filled, humor-filled script, fills in the crime, the trial and ensuing years in snatches, giving away secrets with care. The focus is on Betty Anne resolving to get a law degree, taking over her brother's case. You'd have to have a stone heart not to be moved by her accent-perfect "It's going to take a long time, Kenny. A really long time."
He gives her limited life purpose and she gives him hope, hope that frequently is dashed by a bureaucracy that never likes to admit mistakes (if indeed it made one).
Only somebody who has stripped himself emotionally bare for the camera could achieve the level of performance that Goldwyn gets from everyone in the cast.