Reality undeniably has been generous to Hilary Swank. Her 1999 performance as slain transgender teen Brandon Teena was so astonishing it swept up most top acting honors, including the Oscar. But for every searing Boys Don't Cry in her career, there's been a burnout like Amelia. Conviction's trailers indicated Swank's latest stroll down based-on-a-true-story lane would wind up as one of those artificially sweetened heart-tuggers best suited for basic cable.
But Conviction is not only a taut and engrossing drama, it's one of the best-acted films you'll see this year. Stylistically and structurally, it doesn't do anything revolutionary in relating its compelling narrative, but it does get the job done quite well. The movie tells an unbelievable story, one that will outrage and - yes - inspire you. Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a working-class mother on a passionate and single-minded mission to overturn her brother's murder conviction in the 1980 slaying of a Massachusetts waitress.
Betty Anne's frustrating 18-year ordeal to establish Kenny's (Sam Rockwell) innocence leads her to enroll in law school so can go over the evidence and try to spot discrepancies. Her dedication exacts a toll on her personal life, but she passes the bar while sharing custody of her two boys and working nights at a bar. The plot sounds as contrived as the latest John Grisham page-turner. Screenwriter Pamela Gray (Walk on the Moon) realizes how incredible the material is and wisely refrains from overcluttering her story. She hones in on Betty Ann's steely resolve, which is consistently tested by groan-inducing hurdles - including the political aspirations of others. Gray and Swank do go overboard at times in emphasizing Betty Anne's virtuousness, but given what she accomplished, it seems justified.
Other characters are more flawed and more complex. As played by the versatile Rockwell (Choke), Kenny is one messed-up guy - a gregarious ham and the life of any party. He chooses female companions foolishly and possesses a fists-of-fury temper that lands him in trouble. Rockwell, who has always been an organic actor unafraid of making himself look bad on-screen, again goes the natural route rather than the theatrical. The result is a layered performance that never hits a false note.
Director Tony Goldwyn (also of Walk on the Moon) resurrects the '80s perfectly - especially the hairstyles - and draws out tremendous performances from his supporting cast. Juliette Lewis, as Kenny's boozy ex-girlfriend, reminds us that no one can play slurring trash like she can. Minnie Driver infuses the film with champagne effervescence as Betty.Anne's law school chum. And Melissa Leo (Frozen River) is nervy and ambitious as the cop who nails Kenny.
Each performance makes Conviction even more compelling as the drama smoothly rides to an expected yet effective outcome. Although its conventionality prevents Conviction from breaking out as a great movie, it remains - beyond any reasonable doubt - a darn good film.
Cast: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo.
Director: Tony Goldwyn.
Screenwriter: Pamela Gray.
Producers: Tony Goldwyn, Andrew S. Karsch.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 106 minutes. Language and some violent images. Playing at area theaters.
Sam Rockwell in Conviction. (Ron Batzdorff)