The title of the new movie Conviction surely refers more to the actors than to those who toiled on the other side of the camera. Whereas the performers like Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell inhabit their roles with impressive dedication, folks like director Tony Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray merely seem to be going through the motions, expecting Academy Award nominations to come tumbling down simply because their film tackles Oscar-bait material. But this is one fishing expedition that will likely come up empty-handed.
The sort of homogenized, faintly uplifting film that's plugged in the ads with a "Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award" logo (a scarlet letter to seasoned moviegoers), Conviction relates the true-life tale of Betty Anne Waters (Swank), a lower-class Massachusetts wife and mother who spends close to two decades of her life trying to prove the innocence of her brother Kenny (Rockwell). Charged with murder, Kenny's serving a life sentence thanks in no small part to the efforts of a humorless police officer (Melissa Leo) and the testimonies of his wife (Clea DuVall) and girlfriend (Juliette Lewis). But Betty Anne is convinced that he's not guilty, so this woman of limited education concentrates on the single goal of becoming a lawyer so she can work to free her sibling.
The cast members, especially the two leads, do their best to sell what on paper is a worthy story, but their game efforts come up short against the thudding treatment by Goldwyn and Gray. The two filmmakers are so myopic in their focus on their heroine's pitbull approach to judiciary matters that they fail to provide much in the way of context, with important background details either painted in broad strokes or ignored altogether. Worse, their limitations result in a picture that operates at the same speed throughout, with little variation in tone. Ultimately, the finale will have audience members on their feet, but for the wrong reason — not as part of a standing ovation but in an effort to beat a hasty retreat to the exit.