Hilary Swank as Betty Anne Waters working to save her brother's life.
Hilary Swank as Betty Anne Waters working to save her brother's life.

Some movies signal their earnestness so emphatically that it takes up all the oxygen and they suffocate.

Conviction, for one. The film has a good and worthy story to tell, and I assume the telling is true to the real-life case. Kenny Waters, a likable but incorrigible working-class rapscallion in his twenties, was accused of a brutal 1980 murder in Ayer, Massachusetts. He was convicted and sent to prison in 1983. Sister Betty Anne, his soulmate in near-Dickensian childhood, set out to earn a law degree for the express purpose of reopening Kenny's case and proving his innocence. Not a gifted student, and often bone weary with single-parenting two sons and holding down a waitressing job, she nevertheless succeeded in getting credentialed and finally, through sheer doggedness, finding evidence calling her brother's conviction into serious question. In 2001, after having spending 16 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit, Kenny Waters walked out of prison a free man.

And yet, everything about Conviction is too pat. Start with the topline casting of Hilary Swank. By this point Swank, deservedly Oscared for Boys Don't Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), is so identified with gritty working-class heroines 100 percent resolved to achieve their goal against all odds, her résumé works against her finding anything in the role of Betty Anne Waters to surprise either her or us. Nor does she.

Playing Kenny, Sam Rockwell faces a somewhat comparable challenge but fares better. After myriad borderline-nutjob roles (notably Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Charlie Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), we know he's ideally cast to nail his character's volatility - a wildman quality that mostly translates into jagoff antics but also could credibly have swept him on to murderous violence. However, that sort of ambiguity lies outside the filmmakers' range of interest, and in any case Kenny's is a supporting role in Betty Anne's story.

Where the filmmakers - director Tony Goldwyn and writer Pamela Gray - do want to go is terra that's already cognita. Although the narrative has been made deliberately jagged early on, especially in breaking up and scrambling mini-flashbacks and backstory information, its overall rhythm and movement follow a hope-frustration, hope-frustration template familiar from decades' worth of lost-cause crusade pictures. The movie-of-the-week relentlessness of the calculation - and the need to remember those dang New England accents - plays havoc with a fine supporting cast including Melissa Leo as a flint-hard Ayer cop, Peter Gallagher as Innocence Project lawyer Barry Scheck (yes, DNA is a big factor here), Clea DuVall as Kenny's eventually estranged wife, and Ari Graynor (the drunken gal pal in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) as the grown daughter who never really knew him.

Two other players to mention before we allow you time off for good behavior: As Betty Anne's self-appointed best friend from law school and mainstay in the campaign to exonerate Kenny, Minnie Driver has apparently been instructed to watch the entire filmography of the great Eve Arden. She's a good student, but her diligence, like the above-noted earnestness, tends to foreground itself.

Juliette Lewis has two scenes as a bottom-feeding girlfriend whose testimony helped put Kenny in stir. This is the actress's best work since her breakout performance nearly 20 years ago in Cape Fear, and the second of the scenes is the best the film has to offer. Her every word and insinuating mispronunciation are excruciatingly on point - characterization as class warfare - and Lewis brilliantly catches the poor dumb creature's only half-willed complicity as she begins to embellish her memories to give her Innocence Project interviewers what she intuits they want. Then someone hands over an affidavit for her to sign, and suddenly she's a jailhouse lawyer. What happens in her eyes in that instant may be the scariest thing on screen this year. -RTJ