Review in a Hurry: He ain't heavy, he's her wrongly incarcerated brother. Hilary Swank stars as a working-class Massachusetts wife/mom who goes on an 18-year quest to overturn her beloved bro's murder conviction. The verdict is in: Conviction is a standard but stirring legal drama.
The Bigger Picture: Apparently, Hilary Swank has a strong conviction for depicting true-life figures—from Brandon Teena in her career-launching Boys Don't Cry to aviator Earhart in last year's critically grounded Amelia. Fortunately, her performance as justice-seeker Betty Anne Waters in this well-crafted biopic lands her closer to the former.
Betty Anne is convinced older brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell)—a hotheaded troublemaker with frequent brushes with the law—didn't commit the heinous murder for which he received a life sentence in 1983.
A high-school dropout and divorced mother of two sons, Betty Anne doesn't have the resources to fight a long legal battle. Determined to exonerate Kenny, she earns her diploma and college degree and then struggles to pass the bar exam. With assistance from law-school classmate Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), Betty Anne pores through suspicious evidence from the case, uses newly available DNA testing, and even finds an ally in uber-attorney Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher).
Conviction covers lots of personal and legal ground but shifts through time periods, including flashbacks of the sibs' rough-and-tumble upbringing, with efficiency and ease. Though lacking the complexity of Erin Brockovich, which it frequently brings to mind, the pic still hits the right emotional notes and (mostly) restrains the melodrama. (Juliette Lewis does munch scenery as Kenny's white-trash ex.)
Swank is back on terra firma as a working-class crusader (P.S. Please, no more P.S. I Love Yous), and her pure gumption should have audiences rooting for this unrelenting underdog. Driver as saucy Rice and Melissa Leo as a corrupt cop also make strong impressions. But it's Rockwell who shines most—alternately charming, scary, and sad—as the loose cannon who hardens and ages and loses all hope as the years tick by.
The 180—a Second Opinion: The flick has a few overly familiar scenes: Super-busy Betty Anne just misses putting her paper in the mean professor's inbox—d'oh! And then she forgets the fishing trip with her boys (Aw, mom!).