October 21, 2010
There are two definitions of the word "conviction." The first, is "an unshakable belief in something without need for proof or evidence." The second, used in a legal sense, is "the verdict that results when a court of law finds a defendant guilty of a crime." With CONVICTION, we have the perfect blend of both meanings on a multitude of levels. We see the conviction of Tony Goldwyn in his execution and direction of the film. We see the conviction of each actor in their respective performances. We see the conviction of Betty Anne Waters in her belief in her brother's innocence. And we see Kenneth Waters, a man convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances and sentenced to life in prison for the 1980 death of Katharina Brow in Ayers, Massachusetts. On March 15, 2001, the Ides of March no less, Kenneth Waters walked out of a Middlesex Massachusetts courtroom a free man; free thanks to the conviction of his sister, Betty Anne. CONVICTION is their story.
Betty Anne and Kenneth Waters were two of eight siblings, most of whom were all born of different fathers but sharing the same mother. Ignored by their mother, Betty Anne and Kenny were unusually close, relying on each other for everything in life. Unfortunately, their upbringing was anything but safe, secure and loving. With no real education, no parental guidance, no money to speak of, little food (but apparently chocolate and sweets were aplenty) the two were always off getting into some sort of mischief, but for whatever reason, Kenny seemed to always go beyond "just mischief." One of their most outrageous "crimes" was when they broke into the house of Katharina Brow. A hard-working, German-born woman with children of her own, the Brow house was spic and span, bright and cheery, and for Betty Anne and Kenny, it was the kind of home they could only dream about. So, at age 10, Kenny took his sister by the hand and led her into the dream she always wanted. Of course, then Katharina Brow turned Kenny into the cops.
As Kenny entered his teens, his rowdiness increased, as did his temper. With more than a few bouts with the law, it was no surprise when, in 1980, Kenny was apparently the first person questioned the day Katharina Brow was found brutally stabbed to death in her trailer home, the same home that Kenny and Betty Anne had broken into those many years ago. Over the years, however, despite his youthful adventures and Brow's reporting him to the police, their were no further altercations or disputes between them, even when Brow frequented the Park Street Diner at which Kenny worked.
But it took two years before Kenny was ultimately charged with Brow's murder and that arrest was due to a hearsay report from an ex-girlfriend of Kenny's suddenly coming forth alleging that Kenny had admitted the murder to her. Once in trial, Lady Luck was still nowhere to be found, as two former girlfriends, including the mother of his infant daughter, testified against him. Another witness testified Kenny sold her a ring that she had given to Brow as a gift. But the nail in the coffin was the blood evidence which was determined to be the same type of Kenny's. Kenny was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
But Betty Anne refused to accept the verdict and putting her love for her brother and belief in his innocence above all else, she went back and graduated high school, went on to college and ultimately law school, determined to find a way to free Kenny. And finally, 18 years later, in 1999, luck was on their side when Betty Anne, now Kenny's attorney, stumbled onto some evidence that had escaped destruction over the years and called on Barry Scheck and his Innocence Project to implement new DNA testing methods to proof Kenny's innocence.
Sam Rockwell is magnificent as Kenny Waters. Totally off the wall at times in his performance, Rockwell has you believing Kenny really is guilty and that all of Betty Annefs actions are being committed out of a very warped obsessive love. But despite the mania and anger of Kenny, Rockwell gives him a humanity which draws you in, makes Kenny likeable and prompts the audience to ask questions. And yes, the relationship between Betty Anne and Kenny does come across as somewhat incestuous and obsessive, although itfs never directly addressed in the film. I see and understand the conceptualization of sibling love and the fact their mother was a first rate slut bringing Kenny and Betty Anne closer than close, but I think Goldwyn pushed that envelope too far if there was no delivery once the envelope was opened. While he created the question, it was one that deserved an answer given the emotional intensity of the film.
I am not a fan of Hilary Swank. Never have been. But that's not to say she doesn't turn in excellent performances, because she does. Betty Anne Waters to some degree is one of her better roles, particularly in the second half of the film where her performance becomes very compelling once Betty Anne cleans up her own act and instead of acting like "trailer trash" and being this insipid "woe is me and my poor brother" dolt, at the urging of Minnie Driver's character and the introduction of Peter Gallagher's Scheck, shows some real polish and the whiney brat attitude that makes you want to reach out to the screen and slap her face, is gone. Unfortunately, histrionics and temper tantrums abound with Swank's performance, many of which are just too fabricated and over the top, too drawn out, and too "movie of the week" (and unbelievable). Very disruptive is the fact that Swank couldn't hold the accent she was trying to enunciate which drove me nuts. Yet, she brings this powerful emotion to the screen that just grabs your attention.
But take a look at the supporting players! They are all superb; particularly Juliette Lewis who blew me out of the water with her portrayal of Kenny's ex-girlfriend, Roseanne Perry. Stupendous performance! A small but critical role, as Perry, Lewis goes for broke with not only her physical appearance but with an emotional gravitas that is riveting. And Minnie Driver! As Betty Anne's fellow law school classmate and friend, Abra Rice, Driver provides an objective grounded center to the film, balancing the conviction and intensity of Swank. She also brings a lightness and practicality to the role which is a welcome relief. I just wish we saw more of her. Peter Gallagher shines with arrogance and cockiness as Barry Scheck (yes, the OJ Barry Scheck) while Melissa Leo is masterful at being a bitch from hell police officer with a hard-on for Kenny Waters.
Writing the script by blending personal interviews with Betty Anne Waters and actual court transcripts, screenwriter Pamela Gray weaves an intricate emotional story that brings the relationship between Kenny and Betty Anne to the forefront, setting it against a legal backdrop. It's interesting to watch the relationship unfold and a delicate balance emotional achieved, the effectiveness of which is thanks to director Tony Goldwyn and Editor Jay Cassidy. The script is intense and detail oriented, the latter of which also creates some issues for me from a legal perspective as I spotted some incongruities which for the layman will go unnoticed. For legal eagles out there, you will, however, be impressed with the incorporation of the Sewell case (dealing with DNA evidence) which is the tool to introduce Barry Scheck. That case turned criminal law upside down and Gray has superbly presented its basics to the layman.
Although I believe the film more appropriate as a Hallmark Channel or Lifetime movie of the week, director Tony Goldwyn has done an excellent job of translating this compelling story to film. The drama moves at an even pace and thanks to Goldwyn's eye for drama and the editing talents of Cassidy, a blend of flashbacks mixed with unfolding events in the present and the catching up of the past with the present drives the story home and builds the emotional relationship of Kenny and Betty Anne. Excellent execution. Adriano Goldman's cinematography is polished, sharp; it has its own sense of conviction with a clarity and purpose that stands out, as do the basic issues of the story (including the conviction of Waters) and the performances of Rockwell and Swank.
CONVICTION draws you into the drama of the sibling relationship and the concept of an unselfish love that knows no bounds. Introduced through the eyes of the law and a courtroom, CONVICTION is a story that is relatable and interesting in this day and age. Were this film attempted before the days of OJ Simpson, it would never would fly. Now, Tony Goldwyn has given it wings based on the film's own conviction.