Tony Goldwyn’s “Conviction” opens with that all-too-familiar title card announcing its basis in a true story. That alone provides no cause for alarm, but the decision to establish the movie’s central hook in the opening minutes immediately lessens its particular dramatic weight. As Betty Anne Waters, the Rhode Island resident who put herself through law school for the sole reason of exonerating her brother from wrongful murder charges, Hilary Swank explains her entire quest to a friend. The premise comes before the journey, which promptly begins in a flashback that goes through the typical motions of a Lifetime movie, albeit one made bearable by above-average performances. Truth, in this case, means predictability. Despite the remarkable events serving as inspiration, nothing about “Conviction” feels unfamiliar.
As Betty’s incarcerated brother Kenneth, Sam Rockwell competently embodies a man angered by the unfairness of his enforced state. The actors throw themselves into the challenge of embodying the aging process; twenty years pass and both begin to lose hope. Watching them bicker and moan about the prospects of Kenneth’s freedom never becomes a chore, but there’s still too much of it. Goldwyn barely focuses on the details of the case in question, hoping for pure emotion to carry his narrative. The resulting simplicity places emphasis on the pathos of the situation with scant procedural details. It’s a strategy that takes for granted the possibility that Betty can pull off the goal in question, even though the odds are stacked against her from the beginning, and it assumes (as she does) Kenneth’s innocence even as he begins to question it himself.
The reasons behind Kenneth’s arrest remain murky, and his puckish character makes him seem just erratic enough to have committed the crime. Goldwyn constructs this ambiguity in a provocative fashion, but there’s not enough visible detective work to challenge it. The details of the murder, the 1980 stabbing death of Katharina Brow, lurk in the shadows of Betty’s admirable attempts to juggle school and single motherhood before finally tracking down DNA evidence that proves crucial to her case. When the family struggle takes the focus off Betty’s research, “Conviction” immediately loses its appeal. Notwithstanding the woman’s tenacity, her path to judicial success lacks clarity, resulting in a lot of melodrama without context.
When “Conviction” occasionally foregrounds its investigatory aspects, Goldwyn comes closer to making things click. In two brief scenes, Juliette Lewis chews on scenery as Kenneth’s trashy former flame whose false testimony partially led to his arrest. She’s among a handful of minor villains in the broken justice system that Betty fights to dismantle.
The movie could use more of them. Instead, it goes through the motions of perseverance already evident from news articles about the siblings’ saga, without giving us the chance to sort through the events and come to our own conclusions. The title has an obvious double-meaning, referring both to the court’s decision and Betty’s drive to upend it. The inevitability that she will reach that goal lessens the potential for a lasting dramatic effect, leaving only one real conviction — that the outcome anticipated by early scenes was no faker.