Conviction

Conviction is an amazing true story, told simply, enhanced with superb performances. The struggle it portrays is so frustrating, the system so unbending, and the corruption it uncovers so powerful, that any personal problem you might have before you enter the theatre vanishes by comparison. It’s not an easy movie to watch–if you’ve ever been the victim of injustice, you might start having flashbacks. The saving grace of this powerful, difficult movie is that there is a happy ending

In 1983 in a hardscrabble small town in Massachusetts, a woman living alone is brutally murdered. Picked up for questioning is the local bad boy, charming Kenny Waters, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the murder. However, he gives the arresting officer, Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) a bad time. Big mistake. She vows to bring him down.

Kenny is tried for the murder. Kenny’s wife and a friend fail to back up his alibi. Though he continues to maintain his innocence Kenny is sent to jail for life.

Kenny’s beloved sister, Betty Ann (Hilary Swank in her usual flawless portrayal) vows to do what ever it takes to get him released. Various normal attempts to seek a new trial are rejected. Betty Ann realizes that the only way to get her brother released is to have a dedicated attorney and the only attorney who would be dedicated enough to do everything to get him released would be herself. So with a husband to take care of and two children, she first must get her GED. Then get a Bachelor’s which takes a minimum of four years. Then on to law school for a few more years.

What keeps Betty Ann going is the incredible love she has for her brother. In flashbacks we see the young siblings, always together, fighting for survival against a neglectful mother and an uncaring world. These scenes are beautifully played, providing us with the unbreakable bond that ties Betty Ann to Kenny and the motivation we need to understand.

As Betty Ann continues the grueling path to get her education, Kenny wastes away in prison. His ex-wife never writes and he never gets to see his daughter. He attempts suicide. The only thing that keeps him alive is his sister’s love.

But Betty Ann’s dedication to her brother takes its toll on her own life. A divorce. Her two sons are estranged. Sometimes it’s so hard, she agrees with people who say she’s crazy. Especially in law school where things are almost impossible. But Betty Ann gains a new friend, Abra Rice (Minnie Driver in a wonderful performance), another older law student and the two of them support one another. In many ways, the struggle to save Kenny becomes Abra’s cause too.

Over 15 years has gone by now. Betty Ann passes the bar. Many doors are open to her as an attorney that were closed when she was just a citizen. But the maddening frustration of the system continues–it’s always two steps forward, three steps back. Exaltation then soul-deadening failure. The audience is pulled up and down along with the characters. You begin to wonder if you yourself can bear much more–and for you this is only a movie!

In time, Betty Ann gains allies she didn’t have before, such as the nationwide Innocence Project, a group of attorneys who are dedicated to releasing innocent prisoners through the findings of DNA, something that wasn’t possible when Kenny was convicted. Betty Ann calls repeatedly to ask the courts to search for the evidence from Kenny’s case. It was all thrown out they say. Without DNA proof Kenny will continue to rot in jail. But then, remembering an old trick that has worked a lot over the centuries, Betty Ann makes personal contact with the woman in charge. Lo and behold the evidence box is found. The DNA proclaims Kenny’s innocence.

Soon Betty Ann learns other things. A former friend of Kenny’s, Roseanne Perry (in a brilliant performance by Juliette Perry) admits she lied at Kenny’s trial, pressured by the vengeful cop.

The moment all the characters, and you in the audience, have been waiting for finally arrives. It took 18 years, but Kenny is finally a free man. Under Tony Goldwyn’s uncluttered directorial style, Kenny’s walk down the court steps without shackles is one of the most emotionally triumphant film moments you’ll ever experience. Don’t miss it.

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