“for Terry”

Warning: This review contains spoilers

Every year for my brother’s birthday, in addition to a regular gift, I like to get him some kind of a gag gift.  I won’t bother you with the past details of my warped sense of humor.  This year, I was going to get him a copy of the movie Conviction and put a sticky note on it:  “if you’re ever in trouble, give me a call” (given that I am a licensed attorney, as is the sister in this movie, although my brother is far from needing the same type of help as her brother).  However, in a moment of synchronous-undermining-universal-energy, without knowing my plans, my brother sent me an email about having just watched this movie, and for some reason, I no longer felt compelled to use this as the gag.

This movie, based on a true story, examines a familial relationship rarely explored in any depth – that between brother and sister – and it is central to the movie.  The brother and sister in Conviction are the product of a rough-and-tumble life to an alcoholic and free-wheeling mother with nine children by a myriad of different fathers.   Hillary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, the loyal sister of Kenneth, played by Sam Rockwell.    Kenny is prone to assault and other shenanigans, but then is arrested for the murder of a local woman.  As he is arrested, the female police officer, Nancy Taylor, played by Melissa Leo, exclaims, “We got you now.”  Clearly Kenneth has been a trouble maker, and it appears he’s convicted even before he’s been tried.

During Kenny’s trial, Betty Anne remains steadfastly loyal, although their mother is completely in denial, as most such parents can be, about the effect of her instability on her children.  She states to Betty Ann, during a break at trial, that they had a “normal life,” to which Betty Anne retorts that they lived in 8 different foster homes.  Two ex lovers show up at trial to accuse Kenny of admitting that he killed the woman – that they waited two years to accuse him is material to everyone except the jury.

Kenny is convicted, goes to jail, declares himself a “piece of shit” and makes a genuine attempt to kill himself.  He sees no future.  But Betty Anne cannot let go of her loyalty to her brother.  She believes in his innocence, so much so that she embarks on an educational journey to free him – she will go to law school.  But the road is long and harrowing, as she must first get her GED and then her undergraduate degree before even attempting to get into law school.  It’s a marathon and not a sprint.  Her marriage suffers, then fails, because of her devotion, and she eventually loses custody of her two boys.  She nearly fails out of law school because she’s overwhelmed between her children and her job as a bartender and the school work.

It’s a riveting story of endurance, persistence, perseverance and patience. These are some strong people.  It makes me feel grateful for how easily I have had it in comparison, and also guilty for all the times in life when I have not looked around to see who else was struggling and could have used my help to ease their burden.  When I was in law school, my only job was to study – that was it.  I didn’t have the burden of raising children or working a night-time job or freeing my convicted brother on my shoulders.  Betty Anne tumbles into a very understandable depression spiral that her law-school friend, Alba Rice (played by Minnie Driver), helps her get out of.

Betty Anne takes and passes the bar, and appeals to Barry Scheck and his “Innocence Project” to help her in her quest to free her brother.  But they will only take the project if there is DNA evidence to attempt to free him, and it will take them 18 months before they can even look at his case due to the backlog of cases.  More patience required.

Betty Anne goes in search of the exculpating DNA evidence, only to encounter block after stumbling block.  She’s tenacious and stubborn and a fighter – everything you would want your sibling to be if you were wrongly convicted and had no other advocate.  She never waivered in her belief in Kenny’s innocence, at least not in the movie.

She’s given a little universal gift – she finds out that Kenny’s arresting police officer, Nancy Taylor, had other trouble by way of framing another police officer, which leads Betty Ann to feel that Taylor also framed her own brother.   When Betty Anne confronts her, Taylor snipes,

“I’m sorry you have wasted your life on (Kenny’s case). Your brother killed that woman.”

Providence shines on Betty Anne and her comrades Alba Rice and Barry Scheck.  They find the DNA evidence, re-interview witnesses and challenge the D.A.  It took a whole judicial system to railroad her brother, and the wheels of justice turn very slowly to undo their error.  As Betty Anne explains to her niece, her brother’s daughter, “People don’t like to admit when they make a mistake.”  It takes 18 long years – a generation, and in some cases, a life time – to free her brother.

I love Juliette Lewis as the trailer-park maven and ex-lover of Kenny, replete with bad teeth and hints of anti-semitism and an uncharacteristic reference to something that’s “not right in Denmark.”  It’s a part she does well, given she has replicated it in “Due Date” (2010) and  TV’s “My Name is Earl,” to name a few venues. She’s also given a surprising line in questioning her own ability to recant her untruthful testimony from Kenny’s trial – “what is the statute of limitations on perjury” she inquires through her rotted teeth, meth-hazed emotions and Boones Farm champagne.

Likewise, Melissa Leo, as the sinister Nancy Taylor, is doing another working-class-lower-class-gal turn that we have come to appreciate from her, such as her Oscar-winning performance in “The Fighter” (2010) and 2008’s “Frozen River.”

There’s a nice little epilogue to the movie that shows a picture of the real Betty Anne and Kenny Waters celebrating after his conviction is vacated and he is released.  They also won a major settlement from the police department and Nancy Taylor in 2009.

I would ask my brother tonight if he’d go to law school for me if I was wrongly convicted, but I think I already know the answer.

The movie is nicely directed by Tony Goldwyn, who also co-produced, and its also an appealing linear telling of the tale.  I highly recommend the movie.

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