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"Conviction" - The Tear-Jerker That Could Have Been

By Christopher Campbell | Spout October 15, 2010 at 6:02AM

For a movie that features Hilary Swank crying a lot, "Conviction" doesn't really give its audience much to weep about. It's a fairly drama-less drama, similar to "Secretariat" in the way its plot direction is expected and possibly foreknown more than merely predictable. And there aren't a whole lot of steep climbs or drops in the narrative to create tension or emotionality for the viewer. Yes, Swank and Rockwell -- and in very, very minor roles, Melissa Leo and Juliette Lewis -- give unsurprisingly good performances. But there could have been more (a lot more, as I'll explain later). For instance, as far as I can tell the film is supposed to be more about Betty Anne Waters' "conviction" (as in determined confidence and courage) than her brother, wrongfully incarcerated Kenny Waters'. Yet the film speeds through her lengthy educational pursuits, barely showing her struggle to get her degrees, and skips right over her divorce, which we're led to believe was a result of her focused goal to become a lawyer and free Kenny.
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For a movie that features Hilary Swank crying a lot, "Conviction" doesn't really give its audience much to weep about. It's a fairly drama-less drama, similar to "Secretariat" in the way its plot direction is expected and possibly foreknown more than merely predictable. And there aren't a whole lot of steep climbs or drops in the narrative to create tension or emotionality for the viewer. Yes, Swank and Rockwell -- and in very, very minor roles, Melissa Leo and Juliette Lewis -- give unsurprisingly good performances. But there could have been more (a lot more, as I'll explain later). For instance, as far as I can tell the film is supposed to be more about Betty Anne Waters' "conviction" (as in determined confidence and courage) than her brother, wrongfully incarcerated Kenny Waters'. Yet the film speeds through her lengthy educational pursuits, barely showing her struggle to get her degrees, and skips right over her divorce, which we're led to believe was a result of her focused goal to become a lawyer and free Kenny.

"Conviction" overall is so flat and anticlimactic that I wonder how much was possibly invented or embellished. Could this be the first "based on a true story" work to be so faithful that it proves why creative license is beneficial to -- no, necessary for -- such works? Is it the answer to all those people who wish "The Social Network" and other dramatized non-fiction films were more authentic and truthful? Surely that wasn't the intention, but the film could definitely have used an extra argument between Swank and Leo, or something besides just minor ups and downs in which the characters hit a tiny snag, then overcome that obstacle, then jump up and down with excitement, then hit another tiny snag, and so on. Ultimately there is the very minimum of feeling at the end, when -- and this is not a spoiler since it's a true story and has been discussed plenty in marketing materials like the video we shared this week -- Kenny is proven innocent and becomes exonerated.

As is stands, the film barely got an emotional reaction out of my very sensitive fiancee, who cries nearly as much as the "Crying Wife." But imagine if the film had kept going just six months further. What if "Conviction" had bothered to show us Kenny's fate not long after he was let out of prison. He died. On September 6, 2001, he fell from a 15-foot wall and suffered a fractured skull and died. I rarely ever get weepy during movies, yet I'm certain that, despite the ironic element to this part of the story, I would have gotten at least choked up. If Tony Goldwyn directed this much-needed epilogue right, that is. Meanwhile the rest of the house could be bawling. Especially if it's a surprise.

Just picture a movie with as a happy ending as "Conviction" has suddenly switching gears to leave the audience with a whopper of a tragedy. It'd be like having E.T.'s spaceship explode after taking off. It'd be like Edward James Olmos being killed in a drive-by at the end of "Stand and Deliver." It'd be like if in "To Kill a Mockingbird" Tom Robinson was shot and killed. Um. After being declared innocent, that is.

Of course, such an ending would also sort of exploit Kenny's death while sadly negating the whole point of the movie, which is to promote The Innocence Project (and maybe to tell us all we're best off just doing things ourselves -- even if it takes two decades -- when it comes to the judicial system). An end title telling us Kenny died in 2001, without even necessarily noting how close to his exoneration it was, would be difficult in that context, as well.

Anyway, I'm sure a number of moviegoers this weekend will receive the shocker once they get home from the theater and do a little Googling of the real story (anyone who doesn't do this after "true story" movies is a rare individual, and someone I highly respect for respecting a story as told as bond). I don't know if anyone will shed actual tears over the left-out detail but there should at the least be a fair amount of gasps.


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