Film » Screens

Sister of Mercy

A newbie lawyer tries to win her brother's freedom



"Justice is like a train that is nearly always late," wrote the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Few are more aware of its delayed arrival than the people who sit in prisons, wait on death row, or are serving life sentences for crimes they didn't commit. Since 1989, 259 wrongfully convicted people in the U.S. have been exonerated by DNA evidence. The average time they served was 13 years.

Each of these cases contains a drama, but Conviction brings an exceptional twist to the story. The case stems from the 1980 murder of Katherina Brow in a small Massachusetts town. The killing was particularly savage — Brow had been stabbed more than 30 times.

Police questioned Kenny Waters, who lived next door to Brow. He passed a voice stress test and was released. Two years later he was arrested and convicted largely on the testimony of an ex-girlfriend, who claimed Waters confessed to the crime. Determined to prove his innocence, Waters' sister Betty Anne put herself through law school so she could defend her brother. Hilary Swank takes Betty Anne's gritty New England determination between her teeth and doesn't let go until her beloved brother (played by Sam Rockwell) is free.

Director Tony Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray construct a narrative that elegantly blends present-day action with flashbacks to the siblings' hardscrabble rural childhood, which was spent skipping across railroad tracks and breaking into houses where they could lie on soft beds and pretend they had "a normal life." Neglected by their intolerant mother, the kids were shipped off to a series of foster homes. Kenny is a wild child, prone to assaulting policemen and, as an adult, stripping naked and dancing at a crowded pub. He is well known to the local cops and a likely target of their investigation.

The siblings' relationship is so close it eclipses everything else, including Betty Anne's marriage and relationship with her two boys, who, amid the demands of their mother's obsessive pursuit, choose to live with their dad. Betty Anne's undertaking requires superhuman patience: to become a lawyer, she must first earn her GED and college degree.

The movie compresses many of the details of Betty's 18-year struggle but portrays its emotional toll in nicely elliptical ways (the last we see of Betty Anne's husband is when he objects to her returning to school). Over the years, doubts are expressed about Kenny's innocence by everyone except the fiercely loyal Betty Anne.

As the story shifts from the Waters' background and into the legal realm, it occasionally betrays the TV origins of its director and screenwriter, striking an occasional promotional chord — like in Peter Gallagher's glamorously rumpled, hair-tossing portrayal of Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck. But Conviction is held aloft by superlative acting.

Swank's committed performance is well matched by Rockwell's affecting portrayal of the ne'er-do-well Kenny. The talented supporting cast features Minnie Driver as Betty Anne's law-school classmate, Melissa Leo as a crooked cop, and in a particularly memorable turn, Juliette Lewis as Kenny's woozy, drunken ex-girlfriend, who admits (through the greatest prosthetic bad teeth ever seen) that she lied on the witness stand.

The justice train arrived too late for the real Kenny Waters, who died in an accident nine months after he was freed. But his sad fate doesn't diminish the powerful message of the movie, an inspiring story about hard-won justice and a call to awareness about the human cost of a flawed justice system.

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