Convicted of murder, Kenny Waters (Rockwell) is out of money, appeals and hope. So his barmaid sister Betty Anne (Swank), high school drop-out and mother of two, embarks on an 18-year quest for justice, getting herself through school, college, law school
You couldn't make up the extraordinary true story of a struggling, poorly educated single mother who hit the books and put herself through law school to represent just one client: her hard-luck, ne’er-do-well but much-loved big brother, in whose innocence she alone believes. The tale of siblings Betty Anne and Kenny Waters has all the prize-winning promise and mouth-watering appeal of Erin Brockovich meets Dead Man Walking, with Hilary Swank’s feisty working-class woman taking on the legal establishment while Sam Rockwell paces the prison cell going berserk.
The roles should be ideal glory bids for Swank, whose transformations playing real people (from androgynous Brandon Teena to aviatrix Amelia Earhart) continue to impress, and Rockwell, whose range apparently has no bounds. One is struck by how fortunate it was that Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, and how their story demonstrates the ease with which justice could be miscarried before the forensics leap of DNA analysis, Kenny’s fate hinging on dubious testimonies, political agendas and sketchy science.
Despite everything going for it as a suspense thriller and inspirational drama, screenplay and direction muff a rich dramatic situation by underfunding it with incident. The structure is trying, with flashbacks to Betty Anne and Kenny’s tough, troubled childhood, and events leading to Kenny’s arrest for the robbery-murder of an elderly woman dropped in with seeming randomness to enliven things. Director Tony Goldwyn, who has done some fine work, fumbles what should be huge, emotionally charged moments, such as the hunt for the original physical evidence and Kenny’s climactic emergence from the courthouse.
Performances are uniformly good. Minnie Driver is at her most engaging in years, bringing much-needed humorous energy as Betty Anne’s wisecracking sidekick. Juliette Lewis does a blow-your-socks-off turn as a wasted tramp whose testimony goes a long way to cooking Kenny’s goose. She only appears in a few scenes, but so memorably that if anyone is going to walk away from this with an Oscar, it is she.
Its okay in a TV movie way, but disappointing given all the obvious potential of the real story.