It's been a bad week for Hilary Swank. She's already received a volley of criticism for accepting a paid-for appearance at the 35th birthday of the Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, a man accused of numerous human rights violations. Now comes the release of Conviction, a further reminder – if any were needed – that Swank suffers from severe lapses in judgement.
The story of the real-life barmaid-turned-lawyer Betty Anne Waters, Conviction neatly slots into Swank's recent row of anodyne biopics – Freedom Writers, Amelia – that have done little for her reputation as a double Oscar-winner. Directed by Tony Goldwyn, the journeyman filmmaker behind routine romance stories The Last Kiss and Animal Attraction, this legal eagle tale emerges as little more than a mawkish movie-of-the-week.
The film opens in flashback, with a Massachusetts murder of an old lady that takes place in 1980. While Betty Anne's ne'er-do-well brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell), is a suspect, it takes three years before he is convicted, the arrival of two new (circumstantial) testimonies enough to gain him a life sentence for murder. After he tries to commit suicide in prison, Betty Anne resolves to put herself through years of law school to try to prove his innocence.
Interspersed with flashbacks to their rather feral childhood, Betty Anne refuses to give up on Kenny – though it's only when she learns of new advances in DNA testing that she finds a way to prove he didn't commit the crime. Along the way, she has help from a kindly New York attorney named Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) to overcome the all-too-obvious obstacles. But nothing ever suggests we won't get a Hollywood ending.
No doubt, Betty Anne's staunch commitment to prove her brother's innocence makes for a remarkable true-life tale, particularly as she does so at the expense of her own marriage. But if Conviction is meant to be a celebration of her fortitude, it winds up just being a rather predictable, plodding affair that sees its leads borrow from better films (Swank from Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich; a tattooed, goatee-sporting Rockwell from Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking).
Swank is bland and largely uninteresting here. But, blessed with far more acting resources than it deserves, Conviction's supporting players almost manage to save it from mediocrity. Driver is a welcome presence as Abra, Betty Anne's encouraging law school student friend. Also making an impact are Leo (as a flawed local cop with Kenny in her crosshairs) and Lewis (as his boozy redneck ex-girlfriend).
Scripted by Pamela Gray, who previously wrote Goldwyn's 1999 romance A Walk on the Moon, the chief problem is that the film doesn't have the courage of its – excuse the pun – convictions. In particular, it's hinted that Kenny might, after all, be guilty. But, in a rush to provide us with a tear-jerking conclusion, Goldwyn dares not do more than briefly flirt with the idea. Instead, you'll leave with a rather insidious feeling of his hands yanking just a bit too hard on your heartstrings.