No Greater Love

Based on a true story, Conviction tells the inspirational story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank).  She bartends and raises her two sons while putting herself through law school in order to exonerate her brother.  Loveable ne’er-do-well, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), has been wrongfully convicted of murder and has exhausted his chances to appeal his conviction through public defenders.  The two bonded throughout their rough childhood, two siblings of nine children by seven different fathers.

With Kenny having been imprisoned since 1983, Betty Anne has to first get her GED, go to college, graduate, get her law degree, pass the bar, and then mount an investigation and campaign to free her brother.  This singular focus comes at the expense of her marriage, but she is aided by her best, if not only, friend, Abra (Minnie Driver) and the Innocence Project, with their star attorney, Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher).

The film is held together by Swank and Rockwell.  Swank especially, as she is given a meaty role to work with, including adopting a New England accent without it becoming cartoony or distracting.  Her “white trash roots” doesn’t turn into caricature the way Juliette Lewis’ character, as one of Kenny’s ex-girlfriends, nearly veers.  Rockwell harnesses his manic character, imbuing Kenny with an affable sense of humor while also hinting at his ever present dangerously short fuse of a temper.

“I hate the damn legal system.  It’s so fucking inconvenient.” –Abra

We’re hard-wired with certain longings, certain base ideas. Like the idea of justice. We have a passion for justice. We have a sense pretty early on of what’s fair and what’s not, like a dream written onto our hearts. We know there’s something like justice, but we can’t seem to get there.  We have a love/hate relationship with the law. We are fascinated by its machinations. The practice of law rarely makes sense, yet we are slaves to it.  Which is why we’re left in admiration for the Betty Anne Waters of the world and their strength of conviction to fight for justice.  Be it in the face of witnesses who perjured themselves or the police (Melissa Leo of Homicide: Life on the Streets) determined to close a case on the back of the innocent, the urge to fight for justice comes from a wellspring of love for one another.

“Knowing you were out here working hard for me, knowing that you loved me that much.” –Kenny

Betty Anne’s dedication is amazing to the point of heroic.  So when the question is asked “You’d sacrifice your whole life for me?” from one of her sons to the other, their mother is the living embodiment of the answer, found in this verse:   “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

As we look around at the people around us, we’re disturbed by how people actually behave versus how they ought to behave. Even at our best, we struggle with the already/not yet tension: that we are already redeemed, though not yet fully redeemed. Already holy, not yet fully holy. Something in us tells us that there is a standard of behavior that we ought to adhere or at least aspire to.  Kenny is not a nice guy and is by no means perfect.  He has a temper and is prone to fits of violence.  Certainly he had a rough childhood, one littered with neglect and having no one to stand up for him.  For many people, what we learn or come to believe about God comes first in the form of our parents.  So Kenny, spoken or unspoken, had the question “who advocates for us?”  It’s as if there is some kind of code written into each of us, the fact that we don’t live in a state of lawlessness still points to a Lawgiver. Jesus is our Advocate (1 John 2:1), pleading our case before the Father like a defense attorney.

The story of God putting things right, isn’t that he just woke up one day, decided to pay attention, and suddenly decide to do something to fix the mess by condemning Jesus to a cruel fate to satisfy some blood thirst. Nor would his passion to put the world right, fulfilling this idea of justice involve swooping in, waving a magic wand, and cleaning things up. That would be him forcing himself on us. Instead, His plan has always been to work through people. From Abraham and Israel to Christ and the Church, he stirs our spirits and acts from within creation.

Conviction plows familiar territory but is nonetheless flawed.  Betty Anne’s single minded pursuit to the exclusion of everything else makes for a straight forward, non-nuanced story.  It is her journey and not everyone is built to walk it.  The movie needed to give more room to Betty Anne’s return to school and the drama of her struggle there.  Or even to show the disintegration of her marriage so that her sacrifice feels genuine.  Because of the narrative murkiness, we’re left with the sense that she sacrifices everything for her brother, including time with her children in whom she’s trying to instill the lessons of sacrifice and fidelity.  So the audience has to wonder if it worth it (especially in light of the fact that Kenny Waters died Sept. 19, 2001, only six months after being released from prison, a factoid left out of the where-are-they-now ending title sequence).

Aimed at  the coveted heartland audience, Conviction goes through the expected little person triumphs over the looming system.  By sheer gravitas of its story, plus Swank’s and Rockwell’s performances, the audience is carried along for the ride.