Friday, March 18, 2011

We Find the Defendant... Entertaining

As a birth-born resident of the city of Boston, I've always been interested in films that focus on cities or locations in the state of Massachusetts. Even if the films aren't of the higher quality (I'm looking at you, overrated Mystic River) the locations and aesthetics just feel like home, making the theater feel cozy and warm. And from the misty, haunted asylum of Shutter Island to the gritty Charlestown grotto of The Town to the blue-collar Lowell of Oscar-nominated The Fighter, 2010 was a big year for the Bay State. One that might have slipped under your radar however is this small gem that didn't do a lot at the box office, but nevertheless confidently tells the haunting true story of false imprisonment and uplifting redemption surrounding the Ayer arrest of Kenneth Walters in 1983. Conviction didn't draw much of an audience, mostly due to little or no marketing, and failed to capture even local Massachusetts audiences in the numbers other films handily made. The film even has heralded stars in two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank and underrated performer Sam Rockwell. So how IS the film? I was interested enough to find out.

Let the record show that Juliette Lewis has forgotten her lines
Betty Ann Walters (Swank) is a mother and happy woman in the year 1983. Married with two children, she has a strong relationship with her brother Kenny (Rockwell), a devoted family man with a string of minor crimes on his rap sheet. When he's arrested for the murder of Ayer resident Katharina Brow, Betty Ann is the only one who seems to believe that he didn't commit the crime. The police match his blood type to the crime scene. Family and friends who have witnessed his violent ways in the past act nonchalant and surprised at this apparent development. Only Betty Ann, with memories of the caring and loving brother she grew up alongside, refuses to believe this. Over the span of eighteen years, the endeavors to complete her schooling, enter law school and pass the bar to try and get her brother's sentence overturned. Obstacles block her every path, but her resolution and determination drive her forward.

Whitey Bulger, however, walks free
When you first witness the blood-splattered crimes scene that is presented in the film's first few minutes, you might get the impression that you're in for a terribly depressing tale. The setup for the film follows this path, with scenes of Kenny's trial and sentencing and various flashbacks to the duo's unloved childhood painting a bleak picture for what is to follow. All that changes, however, when Betty Ann goes back to school and the rest of the film is as inspiring and uplifting as it had been dark before. It makes for a surprising turn, and I was pleasantly surprised how much better the film got because of it.

I didn't know the law library had copies of "Little Bo Peep"
The acting here is top notch, led by the simply amazing performances of Swank and Rockwell, who could easily have earned award nominations for their work had the film sold better and gotten more supporters. Swank especially is inspiring as the real-life crusader, who loses so much in pursuit of justice, not the least of which her marriage. Despite this, her single-minded quest to find her brother innocent makes for a riveting portrayal, one in which you find yourself wanting her to succeed against all odds. Rockwell is also amazing and surprisingly sympathetic as Kenny; I say surprisingly because, not to judge, but Kenny is played as kind of a dick. Short temper, bad relationship decisions, violent outbursts: everything that most people would hate, and most in the film as least are put off by his character. Kenny is given some saving graces: the obvious love he harbors for his daughter, and the care he's always had for his sister. Most actors would have fumbled this role but Rockwell (seriously, why couldn't he have gotten a nomination for the tragically underrated Moon?) manages to make the character someone to fight for, a mean feat in itself. A worthy supporting cast of Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, and Peter Gallagher fill the proper narrative holes with solid performances, though only Driver is given material substantial enough to stand out. This is a film that really relies on its stars to shine, so at least that part worked out.

Don't be sad, Hilary. We'll get you that third Oscar soon!
The film does have some problems, most notably the massive weight of the tale's message. Obviously the ability to perform DNA testing was a huge milestone for crime investigation, but the film's critical eye towards those detectives in not back-checking every murder and rape case to make sure they got the right guy is not a little overwrought. We're pretty much told outright that the law is corrupt and attempting to keep Kenny down, rather than being open to the possibility of simple incompetence. I was actually okay with this for the most part, but when Betty Ann tells one character that after eighteen years, Kenny "would be dead by now" if the state had instituted the death penalty, it was about as damning as you can get. Whatever your opinion on the death penalty, you can't help but be put off by the statement, as it seems to take the film in directions unneeded. But the biggest problem I had were the myriad flashback scenes showing how tough the main characters had it growing up. Some scenes would have been fine, but director Tony Goldwyn didn't know where to stop, forced only by the continuing narrative of the film to stop showing little kids pretend to be actors.

With a message so heavy it would make Kendrick Farris wince, it's fortunate that the strong story and inspiring acting keep the film on track and as uplifting as possible. While Swank and Rockwell should have gotten more attention for their performances, Conviction settles on that second tier of film quality, not quite good enough to run with the big boys but enough to recommend for a casual rental, or at least that's what this jury has concluded.

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