Director: Tony Goldwyn, 2010 (R)
Conviction tells the true life story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) and her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell, Moon). His conviction for murder births her conviction of purpose: to dedicate her life to prove his innocence.
Set in working class Ayer, Massachussetts in 1980, the film opens with scenes of a murder. A victim lies dead from brutal stabbed wounds in her mobile home. Police Officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo, Frozen River) comes to arrest Kenny who is suspected of the crime. A known hellion and low-life criminal, Kenny laughs it off and is soon released. The evidence is lacking. But two years later the police come back and have witness testimony from former girlfriends and some bloodwork.
The film alternates between scenes in the present and flashbacks to Kenny and Betty Anne’s childhood years. An absent father and a neglectful mother led to the siblings being placed in numerous foster homes, often separated. Kenny took it on himself to be a protector for his sister, even at a young age and at no care for the cost to his own life. This vacillation is a little jarring and wearying, but it serves to provide a break from the view of Betty Anne’s tedious life in the present.
Because of her upbringing, her devotion is to her brother. And despite his waywardness, Betty Anne is convinced of his innocence of the murder. So, when he is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, she resolves to free him by getting her law degree. This, despite the fact that she has not even graduated high school. Her husband is adamant she will not do this, as they have kids to raise. But her dedication is to Kenny not her husband. Thankfully, the director chooses to skip her studies for her GED and undergraduate and focus on her life during law school. There, she forms her only friendship, with Abra (Minnie Driver), who also adopts the mantle of freeing Kenny (even though she never knew him).
Rockwell brings a nervous unpredictability to his role as Kenny, spending most of his scenes aging poorly in prison. Swank is convincing as a gritty and determined woman with a single purpose. Minnie Driver offers a little comic relief with a few humorous lines. Juliette Lewis and Melissa Leo round out the cast, but they really have little to do given the screenplay which makes the film somewhat dull.
Although the film seems to laud Betty Anne’s commitment to her cause, it underplays the cost to her family. Biblical theology underscores the preeminence of the marriage relationship. Right from the start, we are told: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen .2:24). The leaving and cleaving are designed to form a new bond, between man and wife, which should not be broken (Matt. 19:6). The husband-wife relationship should take precedence over a sibling relationship. But here, Betty Anne sacrifices her marriage on the altar of her brother’s conviction, and deems it more important to spend decades of her life working to free him than nurturing her kids and loving her husband. Sibling bonds prove stronger than spousal bonds, the latter which are shattered. The resulting divorce with the kids preferring to be with their father is a natural consequence.
“Most people don’t like to admit they are wrong.” A character late in the film voices this line, which not only summarizes why Kenny has spent 20 years in prison but characterizes humanity’s propensity to pride and self-aggrandizement.
How true this statement is. When we are wrong, and know it, and have taken action on it so others know it, too, we desperately want to be right. Sometimes we want this so much that we make it so, we twist the truth to appear right. But “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18), and eventually our lies will catch us out. When this happens, we crash and strike bottom. Our house of cards collapses. Better to repent of this proud spirit and acknowledge our mistakes. When we admit our wrongs and seek correction, even forgiveness, we humble ourselves. In this way, we will receive blessing: “The Lord sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground” (Psa. 147:6). Better to take our lumps now, while the humble pie is easy to swallow, and cast ourselves on the mercy of our God Later, when the lies have grown the pie will choke us.
Of course, even from the start we expect the ending. It takes a while to get there, and brings with the anticipated emotional payoff. The film does not focus on Kenny is but one example of people who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Rather, it focuses on the commitment of his sister and her conviction of his innocence even in the face of apparent evidence to the contrary. Where it might have taken the opportunity to bring a moral message, it plays it safe and steady, plucking on the heartstrings of human emotion for one person.
What is not stated, even during the credits where photos and text show where Betty Anne is today, is the fact that Kenny died just six months after his release from prison in a freak accident. While his conviction was overturned and hers proved successful, his freedom proved short-lived. At least he died a free man.
Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs