In court drama, hero's passion stays locked up
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 22, 2010
Like many movies, "Conviction" has a hero. Someone who goes up against the bad guys, the system, the Man - whatever - and, against all odds, takes a shot.
That someone is Hilary Swank.
Like far fewer movies, "Conviction" also has someone you can't take your eyes off. Someone whose outsize energy and combustible mix of rage, joy, despair and hope is so volatile that the screen seems a little bit brighter, the scene a little less predictable, whenever that character is around.
That someone is not Hilary Swank.
Swank plays the dutiful hero, Betty Anne Waters, in this solid but less than sublime courtroom drama, inspired by the true story of a working-class woman who put herself through law school - and 18 years of mounting frustration - in an effort to clear the name of her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell), who in 1983 was convicted of murder. As Betty Anne, Swank is a diligent, if drudgelike, hero. Like her character, the actress tackles her assignment by putting her nose down and plodding ahead, as if there were something noble in simply making the effort.
There is, of course, but it's not always enough. As with her Amelia Earhart in "Amelia," the actress fails to ever really make us care about, let alone buy into, Betty Anne as a human being. There's something perfunctory about both performances, as if the external circumstances of Betty Anne's life - or Amelia's - were heroic enough. The roles feel worn, like ill-fitting clothes, rather than inhabited.
Make no mistake: We care whether Betty Anne wins her case. But it's not because of Betty Anne. It's because of Kenny. Or rather, because of Rockwell.
Betty Anne's brother is the more interesting of the two characters, by far. At best, he's a charming rogue; at worst, a depraved killer. But it's Rockwell's performance - swaggering, overgrown kid one minute, suicidal loser the next - that brings him to poignant, contradictory life. Whether he's innocent or guilty doesn't matter so much (and the film makes only a half-hearted attempt at stirring up ambiguity anyway). We want to watch him, not because we believe in his innocence necessarily, but because we believe he's flesh and blood.
Another gem of a performance is turned in by Juliette Lewis, playing an old girlfriend of Kenny's whose testimony helps put him behind bars. In just a couple of short scenes, Lewis breathes life into a character until it feels like it extends beyond the edges of the screen. Her Roseanna is unattractive, to be sure. She's a drunk and, in all likelihood, a liar, but she's enormous fun to watch.
If only that were true of Swank. Her studiously flat Massachusetts accent and sense of unshakable, well, conviction in the rightness of her mission lends Betty Anne the tiresome stink of a blue-collar saint. She's not content to just wear her halo; she smacks you upside the head with it.
She is, in a word, a bore.
And maybe that's what it took for the real Betty Anne to get her brother out of jail: years of hard work, luck, faith, determination, sacrifice and yadda yadda yadda. But doesn't a movie hero need a bit more than that?
Doesn't a movie hero also need, in addition to fire in the belly, a soul?
Contains obscenity, grisly crime-scene images, sexual references and a brief shot of bare buttocks.