by Raj Ranade
When in doubt, go meta. You’ve already heard the conventional critical analysis of the new film Conviction because you’ve more or less already seen the movie. It’s not just like a TV movie, it is a TV movie (specifically the 1991 Lifetime movie False Arrest – “she was charged with murder – but what they did to her was a crime!”) with minor alterations to match a new true story. But if the film’s central conflict, that of the true story of Betty Anne Waters and her fight against the system that unjustly imprisoned her brother Kenny, is familiar and somewhat bland, the meta-conflicts that the film raises prove to be far more interesting. To wit:
Hilary Swank vs. The World
Hilary Swank isn’t the only Hollywood star with a serious martyr complex, but at least Mel Gibson has the defense of being a total crazy person. In role after role (the doomed boxer in Million Dollar Baby, the doomed pilot in Amelia, the doomed transgender woman in Boys Don’t Cry), Swank only loosens her determination-signifying gritted teeth to exhibit a finely tuned regional American accent (or in the case of Conviction, a not-so-finely tuned Baahhh-ston accent) and bravely suffer for the cameras. When action movie stars continue playing the same kind of role over and over again, they’re derided for their lack of range – Swank, on the other hand, has won two Oscars. And in “Conviction”, she’s gone back to the well, playing a woman who spent 18 years becoming a lawyer and sacrificed her life to free her brother. She’s never exactly “bad” at these kind of roles, but she’s again a complete saint without any kind of interesting variation (read: boring). And the fact that her rare attempts to push outside that comfort zone (she was a femme fatale in 2006’s The Black Dahlia) are uniformly terrible suggests that Swank may be the most overrated actress of her generation.
Palatability vs. Complexity
It’s not surprising that there’s isn’t much shading or ambiguity to the proceedings in Conviction – when you’re trying to spoon-feed a triumph of the human spirit to an audience, it helps if you mash up more interesting ingredients into a paste-like gruel. And so, of course, Conviction avoids any sort of interesting dramatic complication, like questioning the sanity of Swank’s devotion to her brother (Sam Rockwell). But there’s one smoothed-over fact from the real life story here that bears mentioning, because it’s a soul-eviscerating cosmic curb-stomp of a fact that spits in the face of the movie version. In real life, as it turns out, Kenny Waters died from an accidental fall a mere three months after Betty’s 18-year-struggle to free him. A smarter movie would have embraced this fact instead of avoiding it, whether in an existential cruelty-of-the-universe kind of way (a la the Coen Brothers) or in a more nuanced, undoubtedly more compelling story of human resilience (Betty continued to work to help free innocent prisoners). Instead, it’s a cheap dodge for a cheap movie.
Actors vs. The Scenery
Actors are by nature self-aggrandizing beasts, and when trapped in boring screenplays, they’ll more often that not overreact and flail wildly in attempt to be the most interesting thing in the frame. I don’t mean this as a criticism – this is often the most valuable part of these kinds of films, and Conviction is no exception.
Rockwell’s role as the brother is composed entirely of reaction – most of his scenes involve his sister bringing new information on the case to his jail cell – and Rockwell slams hard against the confining box of the role, starting with his Tom-Waits-meets-meth-addict voice and goatee. Good news sends him sprinting across the jailyard and leaping onto jailers with embraces – when bad news arrives, it takes five officers to restrain him.
Juliette Lewis makes equally flamboyant use of her brief scene as a trashy witness who lied in her testimony against Kenny – her brassy, uncouth blather is even more eye-catching than her comically shattered teeth. But the great actors can make indelible impressions in almost no time even without showboating. Inexplicably limited to two short scenes despite ostensibly being the “villain” of the piece, Melissa Leo is a terrifying blend of sanctimony and Puritan stiffness as a dirty cop.
As an exercise, I’ll leave you with several meta-conflicts on your own. You can start with the battles of titles with cheesy double-meanings vs. good taste (he got one, and she has it! get it?) before moving on to the issue of Oscar-grubbing patronizing vs. quality filmmaking. Finally, you can move to the most important battle – “Conviction” vs. worthwhile uses of your time.
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