After Fox Searchlight's Amelia spectacularly flamed out last October, the studio's trying again to grab awards-season honors with another biopic starring and executive-produced by Hilary Swank. As Conviction's Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusetts high-school dropout and single mom who put herself through law school to exonerate her brother, Kenny, wrongfully accused of murder, Swank dutifully returns to the working class, the caste of her past Oscar glory for Boys Don't Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004). Conviction skips over most of the specifics of Waters' extraordinary accomplishment—the GED is mentioned in one scene, and she's practically sharpening pencils for the bar exam in the next—to insert superfluous, heart-tugging childhood flashbacks and establish the origins of the unbreakable sibling bond. Arrested by a crooked lady cop (Melissa Leo) for the grisly murder of a neighboring woman, adult hell-raiser Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is sent to the clink for life—and Rockwell to actors' detention camp, forced into the standard staginess of prison-visit scenes with Swank. "I will never accept it!" Betty Anne declares, devoting the next 18 years to proving her brother's innocence. Instead of looking closely at Waters' enormous sacrifices, Conviction presents its heroine as a construct of uncomplicated altruism. She is, in other words, the perfect role for Swank, whose robotic eagerness to please, to perfect regional accents, to play up big emotions, and to collect statuettes has made her the Stepford Wife of the fall-movie season.
Swank and Rockwell as sibs divided.
Opens at Seven Gables and other theaters, Fri., Oct. 22. Rated R. 106 minutes.