Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell and Minnie Driver
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Runtime: 110 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
In the 1980s, Kenny Waters was convicted of a brutal murder of a woman in Massachussets. It was considered an attempted robbery. Kenny had a reputation for being a troublesome child, an irresponsible young man. The police were out to nail him, especially a female officer on the force who was intent on proving herself among her male colleagues. At first, the charges did not stick. After some years, his former girlfriend and his partner testified against him and he received a life sentence.
Kenny was very close to his sister, Betty Ann. She decided to study law in order to prove his innocence.
This is one of those stories of dogged perseverance, of someone enduring prison life while innocent, and the repercussions for the family. Familiar enough, but stories of courage and stick-to-it-iveness always draw an audience. This American story is told in the American way, hearts on sleeves, emotional appeal, orchestrated score, spirit of triumph over all odds.
Hilary Swank has shown over the years (and two Oscar wins) that she is more than adept at strong female characters. This is true of her Betty Ann, tested by her love for her brother, tested by her uncomprehending husband, sometimes alienated from her sons, enduring the long years of study. It is Sam Rockwell, who is an actor of quite some skill in diverse roles, who portrays Kenny. Minnie Driver offers moral support as a fellow student. Melissa Leo is the hard and determined police officer. Juliette Lewis is good as the perjuring girlfriend.
The factor which changes Kenny Waters’ appeal is the development of DNA technology, not available when he was found guilty but developing during the 1990s. (Another tension arises as to whether regulations have allowed the destruction of evidence after a certain time period.)
Films like this encourage an interior almost-rage at the awareness of injustice perpetrated on the innocent as well as a feeling of helplessness in the face of conspiracies against the innocent. Not that Kenny Waters is an admirable character. His behaviour in prison is disruptive – but, given his innocence and his being framed, why wouldn’t he be disruptive? It is the principle which is the important thing in stories like this – and the reminder, which is spoken by Betty Ann, that in a state with capital punishment, Kenny would be long dead.
Since the trial, Betty Ann has been involved in an organisation that works to prove the innocence of the condemned – its representative is played by Peter Gallagher.
Certainly a worthy film with a significant subject but given standard treatment.
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