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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Fog/Mist
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A woman helps exonerate her brother in Conviction
Injustice is served
Hilary Swank takes on the ruthless system.
Hilary Swank takes on the ruthless system.

In case anyone isn't sure what's at stake, near the end of Conviction there comes a chilling line of dialogue. If Massachusetts had capital punishment, someone says, then by now Kenneth Waters would be dead.

Conviction, an entertaining, sobering film, is based on Waters' true story. In 2001 he was, thanks to DNA evidence, freed after serving 19 years for a brutal murder he didn't commit. (In a sad twist, he died in a fall six months later.) Distressingly, what happened to Waters is less unusual than we'd like to think. In the U.S., 261 wrongly convicted people have to date been exonerated based on DNA evidence, like Waters.

What's unusual about Kenneth Waters' story is that his sister, Betty Anne Waters, was a high school dropout who, in her efforts to free him, put herself through college and law school, then became his attorney.

In Conviction, Betty Anne is played by Hilary Swank in a remarkable performance that at once conveys fragility, warmth and steely resolve. Betty Anne's story bears more than a passing resemblance to Erin Brockovich's: a working-class woman takes on the ruthless system. Betty Anne confronts despair as she tries to balance her studies with a tricky family life and her obligations to her job (she's a waitress at a bar).

She is befriended by a fellow law student named Abra, who is played with sly wit by Minnie Driver. After Betty Anne and Abra pass the bar exam, they work as a team on Kenneth's case, and the frustrations they encounter are the occasion for zingers from Abra like this one: "I hate the legal system. It's so fuckin' inconvenient."

The good humor of Swank and Driver's scenes together is appealing, but also a little incongruous, even distasteful. During these light moments, I found myself thinking of Katharina Brow, the murder victim someone stabbed 30 times, and I didn't feel like laughing. There's an overall problem with the tone, in fact. Director Tony Goldwyn provides the warm family moments and melodramatic music you'd expect in an inspirational movie, but these fit awkwardly with the story's horrifying, ambiguous aspects.

I'm more comfortable with comic scenes featuring Kenneth (played with mounting despair by Sam Rockwell), as when he beats up a guy in a crowded bar, then does a striptease while the band plays "My Sharona." The story is served well by the scene, in which Kenneth is seen to be violent and only intermittently likable. It's not hard to imagine him committing worse violence.

Kenneth Waters' freedom was secured with crucial help from the Innocence Project, the legal endeavor devoted to exonerating wrongly convicted people. Conviction serves as a well-deserved promotional film for the project. Its efforts - and this movie - remind us that people are sent to prison for crimes they didn't commit. That ought to weigh on us, heavily.

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