The opening minutes of “Conviction” mislead you into expecting a bland, by-the-numbers drama. Certain details — the sensitive piano theme, a close-up of a Bible — conspire to exonerate the convicted murderer (played by Sam Rockwell) even before the story gets going. Then, little by little, performance by performance, director Tony Goldwyn’s fact-based rouser develops into something fresh and fully inhabited. This is an inspirational true story worried less about turning dramatic screws than earning its feeling through character.
Top-billed Hilary Swank, who signed on as executive producer after reading Pamela Gray’s script, is almost too right for the role of Betty Anne Waters, the valiant working-class heroine of the piece. A high school dropout and single mother of two, Waters spent her childhood in various foster homes, often apart from her brother, Kenny. The grisly, wordless opening credits take us to 1980, by which time the Waters siblings are adults. A volatile troublemaker with a history of violence, Kenny is questioned by local Massachusetts authorities about the trailer-home murder of a neighboring waitress. He’s cleared. Two years pass. Testimony from two of his ex-girlfriends puts Kenny at the scene of the crime after all. Result: life without parole.
The “triumph of the human spirit” part: Waters was convinced her brother was innocent. She earned an overdue high school diploma, struggled through law school and became her incarcerated brother’s legal representation. Her detective work involved locating and sifting through moldering-but-vital evidence (this was in the dawn of the DNA-testing era). Melissa Leo of “Frozen River” plays Kenny’s arresting officer, a cop with secrets and an agenda. Minnie Driver adds some comic spark as Waters’ friend and law school colleague. Peter Gallagher enters the action late in the game as Barry Scheck, the wrongful-conviction expert best known for his work with the Innocence Project.
Gray’s script covers several decades of the Waters’ rough lives with ease. Flashbacks to their tumultuous childhood; a wedding brawl in a local saloon; Betty Anne’s scramble to be everything at once — mother, lawyer, detective, crusader — and save her brother from his own fatalistic depths behind bars: It’s all there, in trackable, intriguingly arranged order.
Gray and Goldwyn collaborated on “A Walk on the Moon” (1999), the Woodstock-era love triangle starring Diane Lane, Viggo Mortensen and Liev Schrieber. That film managed a fine sense of place and atmosphere, and while Goldwyn’s camera sense isn’t distinctive, the director has a ground-level appreciation for ordinary characters and their surroundings. Though Michigan fills in for Massachusetts (tax breaks, you know), the landscapes feel authentic, never too pretty.
Which brings us to Swank. There are times, in some of her inferior films, when the two-time Oscar-winner’s toothsome, whole-hearted sincerity becomes a single note plunked over and over. Not here. Her character’s determination is a given, but Swank finds her way into the role easily, without calculation. (I found her work in “Million Dollar Baby” effective but hoked-up and artificial, like the movie itself.) Rockwell has the flashier part, but Kenny’s situation behind bars, stuck, rotting, brings a depth of emotion out of Rockwell’s considerable technique. In their scenes together, Rockwell and Swank capture a lifelong, well-tested sibling relationship beautifully.
There are dramatic shortcuts and a few beats that play out conventionally. Kenny’s real-life, post-prison fate goes unnoted, which is odd. “Conviction” reinvents no narrative wheels. But it’s a very good ride.