Directed by Tony Goldwyn
The film starts with the aftermath of a grisly murder in the outskirts of Boston, and local police officer Nancy Taylor, an understated performance by Melissa Leo, has a bone against Kenny Waters (Rockwell) after years of his drunken and truant behavior. Although her allegations don’t stick, years later Kenny is convicted of the crime based on the testimony of his ex-wife and a girlfriend who claim he boasted of the murder, and he’s thrown into jail. His sister Betty Anne (Swank) doesn’t believe her brother could have committed said crime and she becomes proactive in trying to get him out of jail, deciding to become a lawyer with the sole purpose of freeing him.
Throughout this first half, the film flashes back to Betty Anne and Kenny as kids, often getting in trouble, having had a drunken negligent mother themselves. These scenes do a commendable job establishing the tight bond necessary to make Betty Anne’s 18-year journey a credible one, as we see her often putting her own life on hold in her quest to save her brother.
The resulting movie plays out a bit like “Erin Brockovich” and much of that comes down to this being the same Hilary Swank that portrayed schoolteacher Erin Gruwell in “Freedom Writers,” only with a pronounced Boston accent. This Hilary Swank is incredibly empathic to the person she’s playing and like in that movie, Betty Anne’s drive to save her brother ultimately puts a wedge in her own marriage and breaks up her family, though her obsession with saving Kenny also keeps her on course. Betty Anne’s hard work eventually starts paying off as she takes the bar exam and the advent of DNA testing gives her new-found hope for her brother’s freedom.
As much as this is Swank’s show, it’s Sam Rockwell’s performance as Kenny that’s quite revelatory as we’re able to see him turn on the humor and charm at times, like during some celebratory days before his imprisonment, but also see how prison is affecting him, putting him in a depression to the point where he tries to kill himself. Sometimes, his clowning around gets a little much, but it does a good job keeping things from being too grim and serious.
Goldwyn has also padded out the cast with terrific actors like Minnie Driver as Betty Anne’s closest friend who gets involved in the hunt for evidence in her brother’s case, and she also helps to keep things light. Leo returns for a fantastic scene later in the movie, and there are equally strong scenes with Clea Duvall as Kenny’s estranged wife, and Peter Gallagher is amusing as Barry Scheck, the lawyer most famous for his involvement in the O.J. Simpson trials. Ari Graynor’s turn as Kenny’s grown-up daughter is surprising considering how great she’s been at doing more comedic roles. Even Juliette Lewis, who can sometimes be grating, is quite effective as Kenny’s troubled girlfriend who reappears late in the movie.
All these great satellite characters keep the movie from ever getting dull, and Goldwyn gets solid performances out of each one of them, showing that he’s grown as an actor’s director, presumably thanks to his own acting background. As much as the movie is about the acting, it’s generally well-written and a good-looking film, but also one that remains surprisingly consistent despite the constantly varying tones which are held together by Paul Cantelon’s effective score.
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