Hilary Swank has a jaw built for gumption, and all her best characters — boxer, teacher, suffragette, transgendered teen — make use of that interesting stubbornness. Betty Anne Waters, the remarkable real-life crusader at the heart of the well-made biopic Conviction, is a worthy addition to the sisterhood.
Convinced that her beloved brother, Kenny, was innocent of the murder charge for which he received a life sentence in 1983 (behold the double meaning of the title), Betty Anne worked for 18 years to free him. And she did. It’s how she did that makes this story so powerful, a tale of justice served told with respectful restraint by director Tony Goldwyn (A Walk on the Moon) and screenwriter Pamela Gray (ditto). Because the Waters family couldn’t afford good legal assistance, Betty Anne, a working-class Massachusetts mother and dropout, stepped up to graduate from high school, then college, and then put herself through law school, all so she could represent the despondent and sometimes suicidal Kenny. The mission consumed her life, but damned if she didn’t prevail, digging up evidence (including DNA testing unavailable at the time of the trial) that freed a man who lost a good part of his life behind bars. Swank plays the role with economy, a style that fits the no-nonsense look of the production.
The filmmakers handle time shifts gracefully, and the casting is choice: The ever-magnetic Sam Rockwell is Kenny, Minnie Driver is full of beans as Betty Anne’s best friend, Melissa Leo is wicked good as an ornery cop, and, in her two chewy scenes, Juliette Lewis reminds fans why we want her to run free forever. B+