At times it seems like Hilary Swank works exclusively in the genre of Oscar bait, even though she’s made her share of crappy horror movies and random indie dramedies along the way, too. Her latest blatant plea for Best Actress trophy No. 3 is Conviction, the based-on-fact story of working-class mom Betty Anne Waters, who put herself through college and law school just so she could go to court and fight to free her wrongfully convicted brother Kenneth (Sam Rockwell), who was serving a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. Betty Anne’s story is as inspirational as they come, and Swank, who also produced the film, pulls on every available heartstring, crying and speechifying all over the place.
Director Tony Goldwyn connects the dots in pedestrian fashion, turning Conviction into a by-the-numbers example of the uplifting-true-story genre. Still, Betty Anne’s story is genuinely moving at times, and it’s hard not to get caught up in her plight even though you know exactly how it will turn out. Swank is too desperate for attention to give Betty Anne the grit she needs, but Rockwell does a good job of showing Kenneth as a not-necessarily-great guy who nonetheless didn’t deserve the treatment he got from the legal system. And Minnie Driver gives plenty of “You can do it” encouragement as Betty Anne’s exposition-friendly best friend.
The first part of the movie flirts with unconventionality by laying out some of Betty Anne and Kenneth’s backstory in a nonlinear fashion, but it’s less creative than just confusing. And pretty soon things start proceeding in an orderly manner, leading inexorably to their predetermined outcome. At that point, Conviction settles into the level of a TV movie, something undemanding but thoroughly unoriginal and not particularly thrilling. Swank may very well get another Oscar nomination for it, purely out of a sense of duty to the role’s nobility, but the only award Conviction really deserves is one for Most Obvious Awards Season Subject Matter.