14 January 2011


There has to be a point, sometime soon, where we all have to sit up and pay Sam Rockwell his dues. It's not that he isn't already appreciated by a great deal of film fans, but after giving the best performance of 2009 in Moon and promptly not getting any awards recognition to that tune, he's got to be one of the best and most underrated actors working today.

His latest role in Conviction may be a supporting turn, but he is so much of what elevates a formulaic legal procedural above the level of a weekday afternoon TV movie on Five. Rockwell plays Kenny Waters, a man seemingly framed by the police department and sentenced to life in prison for first degree murder. The film itself is the true story of his sister Betty Anne, who spends the best part of two decades trying to exonerate him, first by going to law school and later by trying to untangle the legal and bureaucratic issues around his original trial.

The title is transparently a double entendre, referring to both Kenny's sentencing and Betty Anne's belief in his innocence. The film itself leans more towards the latter part of that equation. Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne, in a better role than any she's had since Million Dollar Baby. She's fiercely loyal to her brother and her struggle is one that's very easy to get behind given how the script is constructed. Director Tony Goldwyn's background behind the camera is largely in television, and he brings Pamela Gray's script to the screen with the same fluidity of narrative that you can play with in that medium.

We begin with the salient points- that our two leads are as close as siblings can be, and that Betty Anne Waters attends law school with the aim of proving his innocence. Then for a little while, the story unfolds as a Russian doll would, bringing flashbacks within flashbacks as we first see the circumstances that led to Kenny's arrest, and then the relationship the siblings shared when they were children. If any of this so far sounds slightly familiar, you're probably reminded of last week's The Next Three Days, as I was.

Aside from the obvious distinction of Betty Anne getting her brother out of jail by using the legal system that put him in there, instead of breaking the law as Russell Crowe resolved with his wife, this one is a markedly different watch because of how it takes pains to establish a strong sibling relationship. In films with this kind of plot, the relationship is so often between a husband and wife, or in the case of another recent film, Mother, between a parent and a child. Conviction's central relationship makes it easier to get into it, and to care about the characters.

Sam Rockwell gives another award-worthy performance, and I'm not yet sure if he'll be overlooked once again. As we saw with Jeff Bridges' win last year, the Academy will sometimes nominate an actor for a strong body of work as much as a single recent performance. Whether he gets it or not, he deserves attention for this performance. What he does so well is play the character ambiguously. If you're not familiar with the true story behind this one, you won't know how it turns out. Rockwell brilliantly plays Kenny as a likeable guy with a fierce temper. You come into the same doubts that other characters encounter in the course of their quest to see him freed from prison, making it remarkably tense at times.

It's not perfect, of course, and even though I enjoyed Conviction immensely, I find myself weary with the first fortnight of 2010. This film, The King's Speech and 127 Hours are all good awards candidates, but they're all films in which the topic is so worthy that a good portion of the audience knows how it all winds up. I was in the minority on this one, but reading around the film and finding out what happened afterwards means that it doesn't quite ring true in retrospect. For the most part though, it's handled pretty well.

Conviction tempers melodrama with a compelling human story to make for a legal procedural as watchable as any you're likely to see in 2011. Sam Rockwell continues to be an absolutely magnetic presence, and although Hilary Swank has yet to top some of her previous performances, she's good in this one, and her chemistry with Rockwell is arguably what makes the film. If you don't already know the story, it's able to keep you guessing while still telling an inspirational narrative.

Conviction is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Conviction, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

NerdyRachelMay said...

I love Sam Rockwell and will probably go and see this purely because he's in it and it's impossible for him to be bad in anything (I even think he's good in 'Charlie's Angels'... not that I've ever seen it of course because I'm far too cool to have seen such daft mainstream fare...).
Moon is an excellent film and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes Sci-Fi of any kind. I love it.