All throughout junior high and high school I found myself immersed in the world of John Grisham. While his movies never enticed this teenager into a local multiplex, I did read at least six of his early novels before realizing that they were all essentially the same. For years, it also piqued my interest into becoming a lawyer. While that really never panned out, I still enjoy great legal films and novels. The Paul Levine Solomon vs. Lord series also offers some great reading even if focused more on the screwball angle.
While all of the above-mentioned may be fiction, sometimes it’s the truth that can lead to even more rewarding filmmaking. In Conviction, director Tony Goldwyn takes a compelling script from Pamela Gray, throws in some tremendous acting and churns out his best film yet. Although he’d only directed only three feature films prior to this one (A Walk on the Moon, Someone Like You…, The Last Kiss), he’s been heavily involved in television. Having done episodes in series including Dexter (one of the best shows on right now), Justified, Damages, Kidnapped, Law & Order and Without a Trace, directing a movie like Conviction makes sense.
Conviction concerns the true story of a 1980 murder; Katharina Brow had been stabbed 30 times and her head literally beaten to a pulp. All eyes immediately set upon Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), as he’s had a long, sordid history with the police. Although Kenny is originally found innocent, two years later he’s back on trial, and this time he’s found guilty, sentenced to life without parole.
Now Kenny’s sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) will spend what seems like the rest of her life proving Kenny’s innocence, including attending law school and passing the Bar Exam. But it’s not until the possibility of DNA testing comes along that Betty Anne can bring the family long-overdue justice. Not to say that she doesn’t seek out a little help from a fellow lawyer friend, Abra Rice (Minnie Driver) and hot-shot lawyer, Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) of the Innocence Project.
While sometimes the handheld camera style gets a little distracting in the home-front parts of the story, director Goldwyn never lets things fall into the melodramatics of television and keeps things at a more personal level. This is particularly helpful in the relationship of Kenny and Betty Anne. You always believe they are siblings, and this is helped even more so through the use of flashbacks. The best of these shows them boxing in the family barn where Betty Anne (Bailee Madison) KO’s Kenny (Tobias Campbell); in another we see them breaking and entering into people’s homes, eating all their candy, and passing out in a sugary daydream living a better life vicariously through their escapades.
The biggest travesty (besides Kenny’s conviction) will be if Rockwell does not get some attention at the next Academy Awards. If they can honor Johnny Depp for his Capt. Jack Sparrow then there’s absolutely no reason Rockwell shouldn’t be nominated for his hilarious scene-stealing turn as Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2. However, his portrayal in Conviction of Kenny Waters is particularly heartbreaking as you see just how a good man can keep his scruples and sense of humor even while behind bars for a crime he knows he didn’t commit while he watches his sister spend her life setting him free. Minnie Driver also deserves kudos for her hilariously quick witted turn as Abra.
Oscar bait season is officially upon us, and while this may not be one of the best films of the year, it’s certainly far greater than most of what’s come out. If the Academy sticks to its ten- nominations rule for Best Picture (which went into effect last year), I won’t be surprised if Conviction gets a nomination. It may be Halloween this weekend, but instead of wasting your money on another tread through Hollywood’s sequelitis (the worse than the first Paranormal Activity 2 and the supposedly “final” Saw 3D until it makes more money than any of its predecessors), why not seek out the underdog? It deserves as much of a fighting chance as Kenny did in real life.