In so many ways, Conviction is a terribly defective movie, far above and beyond the ordinary ways that we already expect prestige season movies based on true stories about tremendous people doing inspirational things. Two central performances that are entirely better than the script deserves - it's by Pamela Gray, whose last produced film eleven years ago was Music of the Heart, an entirely sleepy and forgettable movie that is propped by an Oscar-nominated performance that is the only reason anyone still even considers watching, which distinction I suspect it will share with Gray's current project in the future - are the only thing keeping the movie from floating right off the screen and dissolving in mid-air like steam from a teakettle. While I am not of the persuasion that says that a good lead performance can out-and-out save a movie that is otherwise wholly without merit, I would probably file Conviction into that pile if I were such a person, crediting its cinematic value entirely to an unlikely savior, Hilary Swank.

Such a damned frustrating career that woman has had! After breaking through in 1999 with Boys Don't Cry, one of the greatest Oscar-winning performances of all time, it seemed like Swank was on fire, ready to take over the world; and then she came out with a string of lukewarm work in flaccid movies, like The Affair of the Necklace or the notorious The Core. Comes 2004, and the exact same thing happens: Swank is legendarily great in Million Dollar Baby, wins all kinds of awards, and celebrates with an alarmingly off-kilter Tennessee Williams parody in The Black Dahlia. At this point, I'm obliged to conclude that Swank is some kind of laboratory-created sleeper agent, only triggered to give great performances in calendar years when it seems that Annette Bening has a really good shot at finally winning an Oscar. Because geneticists, we all know, fucking hate Annette Bening.

In Conviction, Swank plays True Life Hero® Betty Anne Waters, whose brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) was convicted of murder in 1983 in Ayer, Massachusetts. Without any money for a fancy city lawyer, Betty Anne devoted the next decade and change to getting a GED, an undergraduate degree, and finally a law school degree, that she might personally spearhead the legal challenge to get her brother out of prison, with the aid of celebrity lawyer Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher), co-founder of the Innocence Project. Since the movie exists, it is fair to reveal that she succeeds.

If I were a movie studio executive, I'd certainly see all kinds of promise in this material, so it's no wonder that Conviction was greenlit. It's the kind of inspiring underdog story that has greased the wheels of awards season since the notion of movie awards began. What's a bit dazzling, then, is how wildly far Conviction ends up from the standard template for inspiring underdog stories, or in fact how far from a basically functional narrative of any kind. Telescoping 21 years into 107 minutes can't be easy, of course, but it's also something that has been done with varying degrees of success; here, the utter lack of success is so complete that it almost gains its own kind of compelling avant-garde momentum.

Consider that story - think of all the angles from which you could tell it - is it the story of a woman dragging herself up from poverty through an educational system that she's unprepared for? -or the tale of a wife and mother dedicated with such single-minded intensity to a mission that she leaves her family behind? -or a story of the bond between sister and brother that transcends time and space? -or a thrilling courtroom drama? In the end, unable to decide between these, the filmmakers include a little bit of everything, leaving an unrecognisable slurry of traditional true-life drama clichés. Structurally, the movie begins in the mid-'90s (the film is impossibly unclear with specific dates, and refuses to give us any help by making Swank visibly age throughout, meaning that most of the time we have to rely on the implications of hair and wardrobe to guess when in the 1980-2001 span any given scene takes place), with our heroine meeting and slowly befriending Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), the only other woman Of A Certain Age in her law class. When Abra asks why Betty Anne is doing this, she flashes back to 1980, when the murder took place and her brother first came under suspicion, then to 1983, when he was convicted and she pledged to save him, and right now it sure looks like we have ourselves a framework narrative - but before too long, the film skips years ahead, where we find that Betty Anne's husband (Loren Dean) has already left her, and she's nervously awaiting her acceptance letter from law school. And then again, just as we've grounded ourselves, Betty Anne has her law degree, and begins to investigate her brother's case in earnest.

It's not, of course, an invalid way to lay out this plot: there's a lot of ground to cover. But by showing us just enough to make it entirely clear how much information we're glancing over and ignoring to get the hell to the late 1990s, when Betty Anne began tearing into the years-old murder case, Conviction draws as much attention as it possibly can to the tottering edifice of its own backstory, to which far too much time is devoted for as thin as it ends up being. Better, far better, to have simply set up shop as Betty Anne got her degree, and let some exposition clarify the whys involved. As it stands, everything that depicts an event prior to that moment has the unlikable feeling of padding.

And once the plot properly kicks in, rather than the florid backstory - that is when Conviction hits the brick wall. Betty Anne Waters, having gone to school, having divorced her husband and generally held her kids at arm's length, having faced down the classist, sexist world of law, must face her biggest foe yet - intransigent bureaucracy! Sparing you the details, yes, Conviction becomes a thriller about hounding people with phone calls and waiting in offices. This isn't an impossible obstacle: much the same thing happened with Erin Brockovich, a fine corker of a legal thriller if ever there was such a thing. Erin Brockovich, however, had the direction of the mighty Steven Soderbergh, then nearing the very peak of his crowd-pleasing abilities, while Conviction only has Tony Goldwyn, a veteran television director whose last feature was The Last Kiss, a mawkish and wickedly unexceptional twentysomething angst-com. His new film finds that he has picked up no new tricks whatsoever in the intervening years, though his television roots don't show particularly badly - no overreliance on close-ups, or that sort of thing. Mostly, the film is just visually plain, cinematic khaki slacks with a plain polo shirt. Certainly, Goldwyn does nothing to help the conflict-devoid, erratically-paced screenplay out of its trench.

Thus, we come to Swank. That most erratic of actresses, who when she comes to play, comes to play, and in this particular case, appears to have snagged a copy of the 17-hour script, in which all the depths of Betty Anne's personal life is discussed and explored in detail, rather than simply glossed; in which her pain and sacrifices are foregrounded, not cryptically alluded to in passing in one scene. It is a tender performance and strong, fully earning the film's titular conviction. I could not in good faith say that Swank is "great" in the role - the role itself does not allow for greatness. But she is, probably, as good as anyone conceivably could be, hobbled only by a surprise Massachusetts accent that absolutely ruins her first scene but mostly slips into invisibility once we've gotten used to it.

Her co-stars are mainly used as window-dressing (save for Juliette Lewis, who is alarmingly terrible as the Queen of the White Trash Parade); the single outstanding exception is Rockwell, given even less to do - his role consists of virtually nothing but appear once every ten minutes to say, in roughly this order, "I can't keep doing this, fuck them, you should stop wasting your life on me, I love you sis" - but, like Swank, he's working from a playbook that includes a lot more humanity than the script evidently gives him; though again, not one of the actor's finest moments, he drags out a weary sadness that serves to justify what is, in most other respects, a baldly story-driving role.

All that is well and nice, but like I said: I'm not among those who count a top-notch performance or two as reason enough for a movie to exist, and there is nothing else whatsoever that gives Conviction any sort of dramatic or artistic heft. Honestly, I can't even say that it struck me as terrible inspiring in a crude, manipulative way; Betty Anne's struggles are described rather than depicted, and it's hard to get the sense that she's actually doing anything but being really, really patient. This does not a motion picture make; it's a pitch meeting that accidentally got filmed before they had anything else ready, no more and no less.


Kudos, by the way, for the most cloying double entendre of any movie title this year.