Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters in the film "Conviction." (Ron Batzdorff / Fox Searchlight )
"Conviction," starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, is an exceedingly earnest ripped-from-the-headlines story of a sister's saving grace and the salvation possible with DNA typing. Yet the film falls short of delivering the outrage and uplift that should have come easy for this true-life fight against justice denied.
Directed by Tony Goldwyn, the film follows the prison saga of Kenny Waters (Rockwell), a good ole rural Massachusetts boy serving a life sentence for a murder he contends he didn't commit, and the extraordinary measures his sister Betty Anne (Swank) takes to fight that conviction.
Betty Anne is exactly the sort of working-class heroine that Swank favors, a high school dropout who was married with two kids and no money for attorney fees when her brother was sent to jail. Driven by her unfailing belief in his innocence, she went back to school, working her way through college, then law school and passing the bar in two states so she could argue on her brother's behalf.
There is an angular hardness to the actress that never completely masks an interior vulnerability that suits these sorts of characters. It served her best in "Boys Don't Cry" and "Million Dollar Baby," and less well in "Amelia" and "Freedom Writers." In Betty Anne, we get the tough-as-nails veneer and the tears in the hard times, but any sense of the obsessive drive that pushed the real woman for 18 years, as her marriage crumbled and her kids took a back seat, remains emotionally unmined.
Rockwell, on the other hand, offers up an acute portrait of tragedy. Kenny clings to the sliver of hope his sister affords, though the years behind bars wear him down, with Rockwell seeming to lose cells and sinew between her visits. It is quite something to watch his eyes empty out with each setback, but then the actor has a habit of getting lost in characters, as he did channeling the unbalanced desperation of Chuck Barris in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" or the solitary space-age worker in "Moon."
Goldwyn, with Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman, begins the film with the camera panning through the gruesome 1980 crime scene of a waitress stabbed to death in her trailer home. A series of flashbacks sketch in the hard-knocks childhood of Kenny and Betty Anne. Goldman, the rising star responsible for the gritty beauty of 2009's "Sin Nombre," has captured a world of lives overtaken by weeds both literal and metaphorical — the family's ramshackle farmhouse, a tarted-up mother who is rarely around, Kenny and Betty Anne running wild.
Kenny grows up to be the typical small-town good-time guy with a hair-trigger temper and a drinking habit and is quickly questioned about the case. Lack of evidence leaves him breathing easy, but two years later damning testimony from a couple of ex-girlfriends results in a life sentence. Betty Anne is sweet but forgettable; it would take Kenny's conviction to shape her identity.
One of the difficulties for the director and screenwriter Pamela Gray, who also wrote Goldwyn's well-received 1999 directing debut, the romantic drama "A Walk on the Moon," is the sheer weight of all the subplots and social themes — police corruption, witness tampering, evidence destruction, class and poverty among them.
What the subplots succeed in doing is making room for some nice small turns, from Melissa Leo as the cop who takes an instant disliking to Kenny, Minnie Driver as Betty Anne's law school buddy, and Peter Gallagher as attorney Barry Scheck, whose Innocence Project gets involved with Kenny's case once Betty Anne finds the old DNA evidence. But the best is a haggard, broken-tooth, chain-smoking Juliette Lewis as one of Kenny's exes, frighteningly real as a wasted woman both drunker and smarter than she should be.
This is the fourth feature film from Goldwyn, who splits his time between acting and directing, with most of his work behind the camera spent on top TV drama series including "Damages" and "Dexter." Both filmmaker and star struggle to find the emotional anchor in Betty Anne the film desperately needs. Unfortunately, that makes "Conviction" more a trial than a triumph.