Review: Conviction

Hilary Swank's scrappy performance can't defend one-note film

Through a combination of talent, effort and extremely fortunate timing, Hilary Swank became one of the most honored actresses of her generation. By the time she turned 30, she won the Best Actress Oscar twice for Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby, placing her in an exclusive sorority with the likes of Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn.

Despite the anguish and fortitude Swank so effectively conveys on the screen, she has yet to prove a very versatile player. Her attempts to play The Black Dahlia's mysterious femme fatale and Amelia's spunky celebrity aviatrix didn't pan out. Roughage appears to be a key ingredient to Swank's creative diet, and she tucks into her role in the legal biopic Conviction as another wary but determined working-class woman who pushes against an oppressive system.

Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, who essentially sacrificed decades of her life to fight for her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) after his murder conviction. A ne'er-do-well from rural Massachusetts, Kenny was convicted of murder in 1983, thanks to the incriminating testimony of former girlfriends, his blood type matching traces found at the scene of the crime, and the suspicions of a zealous policewoman (Melissa Leo).

Unable to interest or afford lawyers to pursue Kenny's appeals, Betty Anne resolves to get her GED and put herself through college and law school to fight for Kenny herself. Betty Anne's achievement serves as an inspiration, but scene-by-scene, the film struggles to find a dramatic hook. Shots of Betty Anne cramming for tests while getting her two sons ready for school, or showing up late for class, prove less than compelling. Director Tony Goldwyn fights to keep clichés to a minimum. There's only one "disapproving husband" scene, for instance, while Secretariat seems to have dozens.

Once Betty Anne passes the bar, she and a tart-tongued classmate (Minnie Driver) seek evidence to exonerate her brother and find a potential white knight in Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher), whose "Innocence Project" attempts to exonerate convicts who could be cleared via DNA evidence. Incidentally, nobody says to Scheck, "Hey, you're one of the guys who helped spring O.J. Simpson!") In some of Swank's best scenes, she begs, hectors and intimidates bureaucrats to help her find lost evidence. She's reminiscent of that time on "The Sopranos" when Carmela demanded that a stranger write a letter of recommendation for Carmela's college-bound daughter, Meadow: "I want that letter!"

Swank plays effectively off Driver and Juliette Lewis as a skanky witness with grey, crumbling teeth. Given Swank's prominent pearly whites, it's like good dental care is synonymous with virtue. Rockwell captures Kenny's charm, volatility and increasing despair as he spends more time in prison, but at times, you feel like you're watching a film called Penitentiary Visitation Room: The Movie! Conviction's characters and material could easily support a two-actor play.

Given the film's gray visual palette and repetitive story line, the audience hungers for Betty Anne to crack a joke or find a boyfriend so Swank can play something other than self-righteous anguish. She delivers a powerful performance in largely a one-note film, and she risks being typecast as the kind of martyred woman that made-for-Lifetime movies are made of. I can see her playing a young woman who grew up in a trailer park, fought against impossible odds and eventually triumphed against the sexism of a male-dominated, looks-obsessed industry. Hilary Swank may be destined to play Hilary Swank.