(2010) *** R
97 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director: Tony Goldwyn. Cast: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Ari Graynor.

/content/films/3867/1.jpgEight foster homes as a child. Single motherhood. Lower-middle-class unemployment. Life wasn’t exactly peaches and cream for Betty Anne Waters, according to the “based on a true story” film Conviction. But when her brother Kenny fails to beat a murder rap, Waters doesn’t look back; instead, she embarks on a two-decade quest to prove Kenny’s innocence. To succeed, the high-school dropout will have to get her GED, earn her BA, graduate law school, and pass the bar exam. And all that’s merely prelude to facing the corruption and bureaucracy endemic to the Massachusetts institutions that arrested Kenny and sentenced him to life without parole. This is a job for…Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank!

Or, rather, playing Betty Anne is a job for Swank, who summons up the proper obsessive tenacity. The mountains of research paperwork mined by screenwriter Pamela Gray must have made it easier for her to identify with her hero, though Conviction isn’t all dogged procedure. We get a strong sense for the familial love that makes Betty Anne’s actions understandable. In Betty Anne and Kenny’s troubled youth, it was always them against the world, and little sis determines to reward her brother’s care. As played by the perpetually undervalued Sam Rockwell, the roguish Kenny is no angel. But seeing the live wire slowly ebb away in prison renews Betty Anne’s determination.

Conviction belongs to that same “love and research” genre once owned by Susan Sarandon (think Dead Man Walking and Lorenzo’s Oil). Increasingly, Betty Anne must rely on emotional appeals to get what she needs, and the movie takes a lesson from her. Directed with smooth professionalism by actor Tony Goldwyn, the film effectively hits the emotional beats of the process’ lows and highs. Principal among the “lows” is the rockiness (and erosion) of Betty Anne’s relationship with her two sons.

Among the highs: arousing the interest of celebrity lawyer Barry Sheck. Though remembered by many as one of O.J. Simpson’s high-profile defense attorneys, Sheck also co-founded the Innocence Project, a non-profit dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions using DNA evidence. It’s something of a hoot to see Peter Gallagher as Sheck, but the film’s liveliest performance may be that of Juliette Lewis, perfectly seedy as the wary woman who may agree to recant testimony from Kenny’s trial. Minnie Driver also proves a welcome presence, as friend, unofficial support staffer, and co-worker (when Betty Anne takes a job as a barmaid).

Conviction may not much tease the intellect, but one would have to be a rock to be unmoved by the true story’s dramatic arc, well played by Swank and Rockwell. It’s understandable that the filmmakers would leave out the inconvenient detail that the real Kenneth Waters died in an accident just months after the events depicted in the film. Still, there’s inspiration to be had in the remarkable sacrifices and endurance of the Waters siblings.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 2/1/2011

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Fox's home-video release for Conviction is something of a mixed bag in its dearth of bonus features, but the Blu-ray provides more bang for one's buck with a fine hi-def presentation that shows an added measure of depth to the filmic image. Solid black level helps to define an image that shows plenty of detail and texture, and the muted palette gets an accurate treatment: along with healthy film grain, it all adds up to a strong recreation of the theatrical experience. The picture, then, is well matched by the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which easily keeps up with all of the film's demands, most importantly the prioritization of dialogue (though the ambient sound and music is also well handled, as is the film's score).

The sole extra here is "A Conversation with Tony Goldwyn and Betty Anne Waters" (10:18, HD), and it's certainly a welcome glimpse into the true basis for the film, as well as a chance to hear from director Goldwyn. It's especially valuable in that the interview acknowledges what happened to Kenny after the events of the film (a point not addressed by the feature film), but the interview also covers the core relationship of Betty Anne and Kenny, as well as their emotional journey over the years in dealing with Kenny's legal battles. Given the amazing story and strong cast, this is an especially appealing title for home viewers who may have missed the chance to see the film in theaters.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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