Thursday, October 28, 2010

Conviction: Fascinating legal drama anchored by strong acting

Conviction (2010) • View trailer for Conviction
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.28.10

Autumn seems to be the season of docu-dramas, whether the family-friendly triumph of Secretariat or the deliciously snarky profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network .

In terms of tone and execution, Conviction slots somewhere between these two, and director Tony Goldwyn's compelling legal drama offers the same high-caliber acting that made The Social Network such a pleasure to watch.

While Betty Ann Waters (Hilary Swank) watches in disbelief and
consternation, her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is led away
 after having been found guilty of a heinous murder. Kenny insists
on his innocence, and Betty Ann believes him ... but what can an
under-educated high school dropout do to help her only sibling?
Conviction is a grittier narrative about less palatable characters, given a finished polish of coarse authenticity by Pamela Gray's straightforward script. This is a story of uncompromising love and stubborn determination: an empowerment saga that would feel much happier under better circumstances ... but Goldwyn and Gray wisely eschew the Hollywood gloss that could have turned their film into a manipulative, tear-jerking fairy tale.

And although the events here are as factual and historically significant as those depicted in Secretariat and The Social Network, very few people will recognize the names of Betty Ann Waters and her older brother, Kenny. More than likely, then, this saga's outcome — although a matter of public record — will come as a surprise to most viewers.

Goldwyn and Gray pepper their first act with a series of flashbacks that allow us to develop a sense of Betty Ann (Bailee Madison) and Kenny (Tobias Campbell) as adolescents in the 1960s: wild children unsupervised by their absentee mother (Karen Young) and with only each other for support, and therefore frequently in trouble with the law in their small-town Massachusetts community.

As the elder child and the boy, Kenny inevitably takes the fall for petty thefts and home invasions, the latter mostly committed so these two hard-scrabble kids can briefly pretend that they're leading finer lives. Kenny therefore has a police record by the 1980s; he also has an infant daughter.

Betty Ann (now Hilary Swank) is married as well, with two young sons. Nights out with Kenny (now Sam Rockwell) are fraught with potential peril, his hair-trigger temper inevitably triggering a brawl. Indeed, Kenny is a total loser, and Rockwell plays the part most convincingly; he's arrogant, no-account white trash in every sense of the phrase. We're not meant to like him, and we don't.

Even so, Betty Ann's eyes always shine when she looks at him, and we understand this. These siblings may as well be one person; they're that close.

Kenny's reputation undoubtedly informs the attitude with which police officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) braces him one day; without explanation, she demands that he accompany her to the station. Kenny understandably — and quite reasonably, I thought — tells her to buzz off. She pulls a gun on him.

The reason for this roust is a horrific murder; Kenny denies any knowledge or involvement during questioning, and is released. But Goldwyn lingers on the smoldering hostility with which Taylor regards Kenny; she clearly won't let this case rest.

Two years later, Taylor gets her triumphant moment: Kenny is arrested for murder. The physical evidence is sketchy, but he's damned in the jury's eyes by testimony from two ex-girlfriends: Brenda (Clea Duvall), the mother of his daughter, and Roseanna (Juliette Lewis, simply phenomenal). Both insist that Kenny boasted of having killed the murdered woman.

We never see Kenny testify in his own defense, but that's hardly a relevant omission; we can well imagine that he'd not cut a sympathetic figure on the witness stand. He's sentenced to life in prison, a fate to which his temperament clearly is unsuited.

Until now, Swank has remained in the background, frequently overshadowed by her flashier co-stars. (Rockwell, in particular, is hypnotically loathsome.) But Betty Ann moves to center stage at this point in the saga: an unemployed high school dropout who can't possibly afford any sort of proper defense attorney ... and impulsively decides to become one.

Yep, with absolutely no visible aptitude for higher learning, Betty Ann studies for and passes a GRE in order to enter college, and then applies for — and is accepted to — law school.

Her fixation, no matter that it results from the purest of motivations, takes an inevitable toll on her family life.

The latter events unfold during this film's third timeline: the 1990s, as Betty Ann struggles among much younger, smarter and quicker law students, all the while panicked by the thought that Kenny, in prison for many years now, might renege on his earlier pledge not to kill himself.

“You promise that you'll stay alive,” she says, during an earlier visit after his suicide attempt, “and I'll go to law school.”

If you're not irrevocably hooked by now, you have neither heart nor soul.

Minnie Driver delivers a strong supporting performance as Abra Rice, who meets Betty Ann at law school; they bond because they're the only two “old ladies” in their classes. At first, Driver seems present for tart-tongued comic relief, but that over-simplification does a disservice to her nicely shaded work. Abra is a spitfire in her own regard, and the best possible best friend: one who stands by Betty Ann the same way she stands by her brother.

The nuances in Driver's performance emerge early, when Abra prods Betty Ann into explaining why she's in law school; reluctantly, she answers that her brother is in prison, and she wants to become a lawyer to help him, “because he's innocent.”

Abra nods reflexively — they're always innocent — and then, after Driver waits a perfectly timed beat, replies, “Innocent of what?”

Goldwyn cuts to the next scene; we don't need to hear the answer.

Lewis' Roseanna appears only twice: the first time in court, the second time years later. The latter appearance is breathtaking for its transformation, and the persuasive toll that the intervening years have taken on this skanky loser. It's the sort of stand-out scene that screams Oscar nomination.

Ari Graynor also makes a strong impression, in the 1990s timeline, as Kenny's now grown daughter, Mandy. Graynor will be remembered as the hilariously drunk Caroline in 2008's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist; her work here is several steps above that fluff.

Such memorable supporting roles aside, this film belongs to Swank; she's simply superb. Her carefully studied regional accent — a hybrid, trailer-trash collection of low vowels and nasal Massachusetts twang — is merely window-dressing; the actress inhabits her surroundings with an almost eerie sense of familiarity.

(The press notes reference Swank's own hard-scrabble teenage years, when she lived with her mother in trailers and cars while trying to become an actress in Los Angeles. I'm willing to believe, in this case, that the claim isn't exaggerated studio hyperbole.)

Spot-on line delivery is only part of a well-crafted performance; Swank also has the body English down. Key encounters — with Kenny, Abra or her own growing teenage sons — are accompanied by the halfway hand gestures we unconsciously make during moments of doubt or crisis.

On camera, such movements almost seem incomplete, as if Swank is second-guessing her own performance. But that's precisely the point; Swank is so fully immersed in her role that she's no longer herself, but actually Betty Ann ... and we go with this flow, watching a character and not an actress.

I was reminded of a famous story regarding Harrison Ford's small part as Col. Lucas in 1979's Apocalypse Now: In an early scene, Lucas keeps dropping papers. A set visitor, convinced that a nervous Ford was making a mess of his part while the camera rolled, commented on the young actor's obvious inexperience ... only to be told by the obviously vexed Francis Ford Coppola, directing the scene, that Ford was deliberately playing the part in such a manner.

Real people rarely are as resourceful and self-composed as many films make them out to be. That's why we cherish work such as Swank's here (or Ford's, 30 years ago); we sense the authenticity, even if only subconsciously.

Conviction — great double-entendre title, by the way — is made up of many brilliant small moments that build into a larger, quite stirring whole. It's persuasive drama; it's also an astonishing (and important) bit of true-life legal history.

I rest my case.

No comments:

Post a Comment