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He Ain't a Heavy, He's My Brother

Conviction (2010)

Ron Batzdorff/Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Conviction” shouldn’t work. The film follows the inspirational courtroom drama template down to the smallest detail, so much so it often comes across as a film-school exercise in formulaic screenwriting. Hilary Swank plays another in her long line of big-screen martyrs, characters defined by the grand moral cause that leads them to sacrifice their lives (often literally). The whole thing, even the thick Bahstahn accents on display, has Oscar bait written all over it.

Yet, if regarded with the suspension of disbelief required of any old-fashioned tearjerker, the movie wields some immersive power. Director Tony Goldwyn, Ms. Swank and co-star Sam Rockwell invest the proceedings with ample feeling, a deep-rooted sense of the urgency and desperation of the 18-year effort of Massachusetts woman Betty Anne Waters (Ms. Swank) to free her brother Kenny (Mr. Rockwell) from what she believes to be a wrongful first-degree murder conviction.

It’s hard to avoid being caught up in Betty Anne’s drive to put herself through college and law school and prove her brother’s innocence, a drive so frenetic and impassioned that it dominates her life, leading to the general neglect of her two children and the dissolution of her marriage. Ms. Swank excels at projecting the sort of steel-eyed focus such a quest requires, the sincere determination of a woman who won’t give up on her brother no matter what the skeptics say.

Mr. Goldwyn (“The Last Kiss”) enhances our sense of the long odds facing his protagonist by revealing her isolation in law-school classes dominated by 20-somethings and the scorn of the endless stream of skeptics she faces. The suffocating, cold small-town New England milieu comes across in scenes of Betty Anne investigating the facts of the case, visiting the main figures involved in convicting Kenny (including Juliette Lewis, sporting some scary rotted teeth) and in early pre-trial sequences set in a dive bar and at a church. Flashbacks illuminating the strong childhood roots of the brother-sister bond, a connection formed out of a morass of dysfunction, further inflect the proceedings with surprisingly ample gravitas.

You can see the gears churning throughout “Conviction.” You know where it’s going and roughly how it’ll get there. But the actors — including the always charismatic Mr. Rockwell — bring a powerful human face to the story, the filmmaker (himself a noted actor) directs with populist flair and the movie centers not on the facts of the Kenny Waters case but on his strong, always evolving relationship with the sister who never forgot about him. The picture might not win the Academy Awards that are so clearly its aim, but it offers a powerful, real-life narrative told smartly, and that’s enough.


Opens on Oct. 15 in the United States.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn; written by Pamela Gray; director of photography, Adriano Goldman; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Paul Cantelon; production design by Mark Ricker; costumes by Wendy Chuck; produced by Andrew Sugerman and Andrew S. Karsch and Mr. Goldwyn; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Hilary Swank (Betty Anne Waters), Sam Rockwell (Kenny Waters), Minnie Driver (Abra Rice), Melissa Leo (Nancy Taylor), Peter Gallagher (Barry Scheck), Ari Graynor (Mandy Marsh), Loren Dean (Rick), Conor Donovan (Richard), Owen Campbell (Ben), Tobias Campbell (Young Kenny), Bailee Madison (Young Betty Anne), Clea DuVall (Brenda Marsh), Karen Young (Elizabeth Waters), Talia Balsam (Prosecuting Attorney), John Pyper-Ferguson (Aidan) and Juliette Lewis (Roseanna Perry).


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