It must be Oscar season, because Hilary Swank is back, looking all serious again! In Conviction she plays Betty Anne Waters, a high-school dropout in semi-rural Massachusetts whose hellraising brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) gets sentenced to life in prison for murder. Betty Anne, loyal to the point of stubbornness, refuses to accept the verdict—the tacit understanding between movie and audience seems to be that he's a Rockwellian fuck-up, but no killer—and after a failed appeal, she sets out to free him herself. Not via spectacular break-out (she's not played by Angelina Jolie, after all) but by getting a law degree and acting as his attorney.
For awhile, the movie skips around in its timeline, gathering quick impressions of the characters, an intriguing remedy to the story's straightforwardness: moody shots of the crime scene, flashbacks to the Waters' lousy childhoods, glimpses of their working-class lives. Yet the parts that seem truly extraordinary—the years upon years that Waters spend earning her GED, bachelors, and law degrees—slips away as the second half settles into linear legal-battle mode (albeit outside of the courtroom).
Too bad, because Conviction works better as a character study than a procedural, with Swank leading a strong, lady-centric supporting cast including Minnie Driver and Ari Graynor. Rockwell, for his part, adds a few new dances (his saddest and least smooth since Snow Angels!) to his pantheon; what he can tell us about a character through impromptu dance remains a chief delight of his acting, more than compensation for any Oscar-baiting hamminess that might slip through (Rockwell's ferrety charm also helps make a cop's late-movie admission to Betty that "we like your brother" a little easier to swallow). His relationship with Swank has a fierce, believable bond, even if movie treads perhaps too carefully around the question of why she finds her self-destructive sibling to be more of a harmless card. Conviction proves that Oscar bait doesn't need to be craven or manipulative—but nor, as we know, does it have to be all that good.
Opens October 15