What could be stronger than the love of a sister and brother?
(2010) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Clea Duvall, Juliette Lewis, Loren Dean, Peter Gallagher, Bailee Madison, Tobias Campbell, Karen Young, Talia Balsam, Michele Messmer, Ari Graynor, Jennifer Roberts. Directed by Tony Goldwyn
Blood is thicker than water, and in some cases that blood is thick indeed. It is when the chips are down and every sign points to disaster that you need your family most. Sometimes, going the extra mile just isn’t far enough.
Kenny Waters (Rockwell) is a bit of an enigma in the small Massachusetts town of Ayer. He is the life of the party, a jokester, someone who doesn’t seem to take life terribly seriously. He’s a devoted father and a loyal brother to his sister Betty Anne (Swank). He also can be an unholy terror. When drunk, he takes offense easily and gets violent quickly. He has a string of petty crime arrests on his record dating back to his juvenile days when he and his sister grew up in a series of foster homes, his mother (Young) more interested in partying than parenting.
When a woman is brutally murdered in her trailer, Kenny is questioned for the crime but let go. The interrogating officer, Nancy Taylor (Leo) sees red when Kenny ridicules her and blows off the seriousness of her investigation. Two years later, she gets her revenge. A pair of witnesses have come forward, Kenny’s ex-wife (DuVall) and ex-girlfriend (Lewis), both of whom claim Kenny confessed to the crime. There is no physical evidence connecting him other than that Kenny has the same blood type as the murderer, but that’s enough to convict him and send him away.
Betty Anne doesn’t for one minute believe that Kenny is guilty. She visits him regularly and her husband (Dean) doesn’t seem to mind that, but after Kenny attempts suicide, Betty Anne realizes her brother will never make it in prison. No lawyer will take his case because no lawyer believes in him so Betty Anne makes the only decision she can – she has to be his lawyer.
That’s a tall order considering she didn’t even graduate high school but she does it, getting her GED, attending Roger Williams College in Rhode Island and paying for her tuition by tending bar. All this extra work puts strain on her marriage – too much strain, and she winds up a single mom with two rambunctious sons. She makes it work, largely with the help of her friend Abra (Driver) who admires Betty Anne’s ferocious tenacity and her fierce loyalty.
When Betty Anne discovers DNA testing might exonerate her brother, she goes looking for evidence which the police claim was destroyed after ten years (yes, ten years have passed). Undeterred, she goes searching in the courthouse archives for any sort of evidence that might have a residue of the killer’s blood. She enlists the aid of Barry Scheck (Gallagher), an attorney whose Innocence Project works to overturn unjust convictions by introducing new evidence. With his help they not only find the DNA evidence they were looking for, they interview both of the witnesses who admit that their testimony was coerced by Taylor. Even then the Massachusetts Attorney General refuses to exonerate Kenny but that won’t stop Betty Anne.
This true story is brought to life by perfect casting. Nobody does dogged working class women like Swank, and she gives Betty Anne some hard edges (she throws Abra out of the house for even suggesting that Kenny might be guilty in one interesting scene) but an admirable perseverance that allows her to take on almost insurmountable odds in getting her Law Degree, passing the bar, finding the missing evidence and at length getting the ruling reversed and Kenny freed. She even manages to find the time to arrange a reconciliation between Kenny and his now-grown daughter (Graynor).
Rockwell is one of those actors who always seems to be on the edge, like a young Nicolas Cage. He is perfect as Kenny, equal parts lovable loser, life of the party and ticking time bomb. You are left wondering if he is truly capable of murder and having to admit that he just might be. That is one of the crucial strong points of the movie.
Where it is weak is in that at times it comes off as a Lifetime Movie of the Week in some ways. Abra’s devotion to Betty Anne is never thoroughly explained and Betty Anne at times comes off as too much of a martyr. The movie could have used some trimming, compressing events a little.
Still in all, this is an emotionally charged inspirational story that shows the lengths that someone will go to for their brother in this case. It’s about not only the importance of family but also the importance of never giving up hope and believing strongly in your loved ones. The world could use a little more of that in my humble opinion.
WHY RENT THIS: Rockwell and Swank are at the top of their games. The story itself is inspiring.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Runs a bit long and at times comes off as a made-for-TV movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and a few somewhat disturbing crime scene images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie spent ten years in development following a “60 Minutes” story on the subject which led to a bidding frenzy.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a conversation between director Goldwyn and the real Betty Anne Waters which delves into the relationship between Betty Anne and Kenny, and divulges the fate of Kenny (which the film doesn’t do) six months after he was released from prison.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.7M on a $12.5M production budget; the movie was unprofitable in its theatrical run.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness begins.