Sam Rockwell gives one of the best performances of the year as Kenny Waters, a man wrongly convicted of murder for eighteen years until his sister was able to prove that he was innocent and get him released. Betty Ann (Hillary Swank) and Kenny were two of nine children from seven fathers raised in a succession of foster homes. She was a high school dropout and new mother when he went to prison. She went back to school, graduated from college and law school, passed the bar, and with the help of Cardozo Law School’s Innocence Project, was able to prove through DNA evidence that the blood found at the crime scene was not his.
Rockwell is mesmerizing as a man whose kind heart and family loyalty sometimes suffer from his impulsively confrontational behavior. He conveys at every stage the weight of his experience in prison as we see him over the 18-year period. His frustration, longing, despair, his fear of hoping too much mingled with his unquenchable pride in his sister are all heartbreakingly evident. He shows us why he was one of the local police department’s favorite “usual suspects” but he also shows us why someone would spend her life working on his behalf, even after everyone tells her to move on.
Director Tony Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray do a fine job of shaping the material, giving us a sense of the characters’ past experiences, the strength of their connection, and the press of time. The cast includes the reliable support of Minnie Driver as Betty Ann’s law school classmate and loyal friend and Juliette Lewis, outstanding as a recanting witness.
Swank, who co-produced, is sincere and dedicated if not ideal casting for this role. She has gravitated lately to a series of heroic characters, though her best work has been in more damaged or fragile roles. A high school dropout in real life, she is drawn to characters who exemplify education and achievement. But she gives us no sense of school as anything but an obstacle course. Her learning is not tied in any way to expanded understanding; she seems to have no curiosity about the law and no passion for anything but freeing her brother. We see the impact of her single-mindedness on her husband and sons but not how their reactions affect her. The story is one of triumph that cannot help but move us, but as a real-life character who gives everything, Swank does not give us enough.