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In 1980, a woman is viciously murdered in Ayer, Mass. Local ne'er-do-well, Kenny Waters, then 26, is an instant suspect due to his checkered history with Ayer police and the fact that the authorities find him nearby after the killing.
Lack of substantive evidence keeps Kenny free for two years, but then the case is reopened based on new findings. During the trial, two former girlfriends testify that Kenny confessed the murder to them. And, we learn, his blood type matches blood from the killer found at the scene. In 1983, Kenny is imprisoned for life on first-degree murder and armed robbery charges. Case closed.
Everyone believes Kenny is guilty. And given the hardscrabble life he's lived, no one really gives his fate a second thought. No one, that is, except his longsuffering sister, Betty Anne. She's convinced he's innocent. And she's determined to prove it.
A married homemaker and high school dropout, Betty Anne lives quietly with her husband, Rick, and two young sons. Rick advises Betty Anne to accept the fact that her brother will spend the rest of his days in prison. Let it go, he says.
But Betty Anne can't just let it go. A deep bond connects her to Kenny, a bond forged in the nightmarish childhood they endured together. Their mother had nine children by seven different fathers, and by the time they reached adulthood, Kenny and Betty Anne had shuffled through eight foster homes. The chaos and utter brokenness of their upbringing unified them, and their loving, protective companionship was often all they had in the world.
So Betty Anne decides to go to law school to prove Kenny's innocence. But first she's got to finish high school. And then get an undergraduate degree. And battle through the prejudice she experiences as a working-class woman slogging through law school. The years roll on, but Betty Anne clings to the belief that she can somehow exonerate her beloved brother, no matter the long odds stacked against her.
It's a thin thread of hope that threatens to break almost daily. But with the help of a loyal friend from law school, an organization dedicated to overturning false convictions, fresh DNA evidence and her newly minted law degree, Betty Anne is driven by her own conviction to overturn the one that's been unjustly handed down to her brother.
[Note: The following sections contain plot spoilers.]
Conviction is based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters' two-decade battle to right the travesty of justice that condemned her brother to life in prison. And her dogged tenacity pays off in the end with Kenny being cleared of all charges.
Betty Anne is a case study in tenacity. She refuses to quit, even though the circumstances arrayed against her would have given her more than enough justification to accept that her husband's counsel was, in fact, sound. But when things get tough, she fights through her despair and keeps her eyes on her goal of helping Kenny. She earns a GED, a bachelor's degree and a degree in law along the way.
Betty Anne dearly loves her two sons and hopes not to turn out like her own inattentive, irresponsible mother. And though she sometimes forgets promises she's made to them, the boys love her, too. (They do, however, ask to live with their presumably more attentive father. More on that in "Other Negative Elements.")
For his part, Kenny cares deeply about his own daughter, Mandy. When she's an infant, he showers her with affection. And we eventually learn that he's been writing her letters every week for 18 years (though her mother made sure she never received them). Kenny understands how blessed he is to have Betty Anne's resolute support. At one point, he tells her that as long as he knew she was on the outside fighting for him, he felt strong enough to weather 20 more years of imprisonment if necessary, simply because her love was so strong.
Betty Anne's journey would likely have been impossible without two key friends. One of them is fellow law school student Abra Rice, who helps Betty Anne navigate various legal complexities and encourages her to keep working on the case even when she's tired and depressed. Abra also bears with Betty Anne's temper, which flares up from time to time. Another key player in the process is Barry Scheck. His organization, the Innocence Project, uses DNA evidence to secure pardons for those wrongly convicted.
Betty Anne thanks God when she passes the Bar exam, and she jokingly says her oft-married mom is "practically like a nun."
At a bar, Kenny performs a slow striptease onstage with a local band. He moons the audience, then removes most of his clothes. The camera reveals his bare backside, chest and legs.
Couples kiss and are seen lying in bed, talking. Abra jokes with Betty Anne about both of them sleeping with someone in order to secure the help they need. A rape case is very briefly discussed in a law school case study. Before his arrest, Kenny jokes with a somber police officer named Nancy Taylor, saying she's wanted to get him alone and naked for years.
The crime scene, a mobile home, is shown, with blood smeared everywhere. It's on walls and curtains, as well as on a bedspread. The victim's bloodied corpse is seen briefly, in shadow. Graphic investigation pictures of the deceased woman are shown, and the brutality her murder is discussed in detail. We hear that she was stabbed 30-plus times, and various people talk about the horrific damage to her skull.
Drunk at a bar, Kenny head butts an argumentative man to the floor, saying he'll take an eye out or kill him. He also threatens the man with a broken bottle. When he first gets to prison, Kenny throws things in his cell and flings feces at a guard. Later he roughs up several other guards. He tells Betty Anne he will kill a district attorney who stonewalls his case.
Deeply frustrated by a setback, Betty Anne throws things and breaks windows in a cabin. She half-mockingly threatens to kill Kenny when he refuses to help his own case. In flashbacks, young Kenny and Betty Anne are seen kicking and hitting police officers as they try to escape custody after committing petty crimes.
Kenny is said to have attempted suicide, and scars on his wrist are seen.
Crude or Profane Language
Well over 50 f-words, seven or eight of which are paired with "mother." One use of "c‑‑ks‑‑‑‑‑." About 15 s-words. God's name is abused 10 times, usually coupled with "d‑‑n." Christ's name is misused about half-a-dozen times. Other language includes "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑" and "d‑‑k."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Kenny gets very drunk at a bar. Several scenes take place in the pub where Betty Anne works part time, and people are also seen drinking in homes. Kenny wants a limousine with a fully stocked bar when he is freed. One of the former girlfriends drinks heavily and behaves drunkenly. She says she was so plastered she can't remember what Kenny said or did before or around the time of the murder. A couple of folks smoke cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Betty Anne's sacrifice on behalf of her brother is moving and admirable. But there's another sacrifice that must also be mentioned: Betty Anne's marriage and children.
Somewhere along the line, it's clear that her husband has had enough, and that the couple has gotten a divorce. Even more poignant are scenes in which her sons are obviously weary of the fact that their mother's attention has been wholly devoted to Kenny, not them. After years of struggle, even Kenny asks her to stop crusading for him, saying, "It isn't fair," and that she should take care of her boys and move on.
For her part, Betty Anne is very aware of the trade-off she's made. Shortly after her boys tell her that they'd like to move in with their father, she throws herself on the ground in a fit of grief.
Several characters (Betty Anne among them) shrug off Kenny's barroom viciousness and striptease. Kenny and his girlfriend at the time, Brenda, unwisely bring their infant daughter to the bar.
A woman calls Barry a "Jew lawyer." Betty Anne lies about her name several times, saying she's Abra. In flashbacks, young Kenny and Betty Anne steal candy from a local store, break into a woman's home and swear at police officers.
In the end, we learn that Nancy Taylor is a crooked cop who coerced Kenny's two exes into testifying against him, using a combination of alcohol and threats to get them to sign confessions in a hotel room. (When confronted by Betty Anne, Abra and Barry, one woman is willing to sign an affidavit saying that she lied in court 20 years prior; the other is unwilling to risk a perjury charge for the sake of telling the truth.)
It's an ugly but universal part of human nature to assume we know others' potential based on what we perceive to be their intelligence, charisma, personal history and social standing. Kenny Waters' story is no exception. As a long-time offender with a chain of crimes on his record, Kenny is an automatic suspect in the Ayer murder case.
But sometimes people aren't who or what they seem to be. That was the case with Kenny. And it was certainly the case with Betty Anne Waters.
High school dropout, unassuming homemaker and part-time bartender Betty Anne had probably been written off herself. So who could have predicted her fierce willingness to sacrifice everything on behalf of her wronged brother���and her willingness to undertake an arduous academic and personal journey to secure his freedom. Without his sister's loving efforts and perseverance, Kenny's shot at justice was simply nonexistent.
That's exactly why actress Hilary Swank, who portrays Betty Anne, signed up for this movie. She told The Wall Street Journal, "I was just taken by this love story, this brother-sister love that I think we all yearn for in our life, whether it's through a sibling or a significant other or a child or a parent; whatever it may be. I was taken by this selfless act of a human being for another human being."
This story is, indeed, a stunning example of loving devotion. But it raises deeply serious questions, too. Should Betty Anne have maintained her protracted and laser-like focus on her brother even when she knew it was destroying her own home? And, equally important, should her husband have stood behind her and devoted himself to her cause out of respect and love for her?
These may be among life's most tricky conundrums, and all of us would be better people if we explored them more often and with more determination to suss out both the human and the spiritual equations.
Inspiration is what the filmmakers were going for—and not just to be like Betty, either. They also seem to want us to do some of that deep thinking for a change. But Conviction's prison yard full of harsh vulgarities and its raw moments (such as Kenny's drunken striptease) bog us down in a hostile cross-examination.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Hilary Swank as Betty Anne Waters; Minnie Driver as Abra Rice; Sam Rockwell as Kenny Waters; Juliette Lewis as Roseanne Perry; Peter Gallagher as Barry Scheck; Melisa Leo as Officer Nancy Taylor; Loren Dean as Rick; Clea DuVall as Brenda Marsh
October 15, 2010
February 1, 2011