Swank’s Bartender Mom Gets Law Degree, Frees Brother: Movies

Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell in "Conviction." Source: Fox Searchlight via Bloomberg

Convinced that her brother was wrongly convicted of murder, a high-school dropout becomes a lawyer while raising two sons and working part time as a bartender. She takes over his appeal, finds missing evidence and wins his release from prison.

The most amazing thing about the far-fetched plot of “Conviction” is that it’s true.

Starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell in Oscar-caliber performances, this tearjerker about Betty Anne Waters’s two-decade quest to free her brother Kenny is a testament to sibling love and an indictment of a criminal-justice system that is reluctant to admit mistakes.

Writer Pamela Gray and director Tony Goldwyn (who collaborated on the acclaimed drama “A Walk on the Moon”) push a lot of emotional buttons. While overdone at times, the film has an undeniable raw power.

It opens with a slow pan of the bloody 1980 murder scene in Ayer, Massachusetts, where a woman who lived near Kenny is found in her trailer home with 30 stab wounds. He was an immediate suspect -- primarily because he had broken into the victim’s home as a kid -- but there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

Scene-Stealing Rockwell

Several years later, a former girlfriend told authorities Kenny had confessed the murder to her. Her testimony helped convict him in 1983 and send him to prison with a life sentence.

That’s when Betty Anne’s exhausting journey began. The movie chronicles the obstacles she overcame to free her brother. She almost flunked out of law school, was told key evidence had been destroyed and faced strong resistance from those who helped convict Kenny.

Swank is fine here, though the big revelation is Rockwell, an indie favorite who has specialized in playing eccentric outcasts. His portrayal of Kenny, a charming troublemaker who was farmed out to foster homes by a single mom overwhelmed by her nine children, is a scene-stealer.

Minnie Driver excels as a law-school friend who supports Betty Anne’s mission and Peter Gallagher portrays Barry Scheck, the former O.J. Simpson attorney whose Innocence Project aided her case. There are also strong performances by Melissa Leo as a cop who pressured witnesses to back the prosecution and Juliette Lewis as a former girlfriend who testified against Kenny.

Insulting Audience

Based on DNA findings and recanted testimony, Kenny Waters was released in 2001 after spending 18 years in prison. The movie ends on a happy note, with brother and sister sitting by a lake enjoying his newfound freedom.

What the movie doesn’t mention, even in its updates on the main characters before the closing credits, is that Kenny died six months after his release when he fell from a 15-foot wall. I know Hollywood dislikes sad endings, but withholding such vital information is an insult to the audience.

“Conviction,” from Fox Searchlight Pictures, opens tomorrow across the U.S. Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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