Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, the high-school dropout whose brother is accused of murder. They’d always been close, having grown up together in a home environment that was something less than ideal, including when they were separated by CPS and forced to live in separate foster homes. They watched out for each other. And when her brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell) was actually convicted, she couldn’t believe it. Yes, he was a cut-up, and a smart aleck, and could be rude and boorish, scatological, and he had a quick temper. But murder, in the course of an armed robbery? It just didn’t seem possible.
So she sets out to prove his innocence. She immediately discovers that the law enforcement people working the case are all too eager to move on; they clinched their conviction. But she had a different kind of conviction: she was determined to find out why they were so satisfied with imprisoning the wrong man. Her tireless efforts begin to wear out her husband, who keeps telling her she needs to move on. Eventually, she winds up moving on without the marriage, because he just cannot support what he considers a ridiculous obsession.
She realizes that the only way to really pursue the evidence is to be an attorney herself. So she gets her GED, then her college education, then law school. Somewhere in there, her two boys, having reached adolescence, decide they’d rather live with Dad, which devastates her, but she’s gone too far to quit now.
She makes one good friend in law school, Abra (Minnie Driver), who winds up being her emotional support when she feels like she’s going to flunk out and she just can’t take the pressure any more. But just when she’s ready to give up, she learns about new cases involving DNA exoneration — and her spirits soar with the possibilities.
Meanwhile, her brother shows the signs of wear and tear that could be expected from 20 years in prison. He fights depression and anger, and does his stints in solitary confinement. He misses his estranged daughter terribly (his wife divorced him, and had even testified against him at his trial, claiming she was afraid of his violent temper). The only bright spot in his life is the love from his sister that will not let him go: that insists he has to keep it together, because one day he’s going to be free again, even though he’s serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. She is literally his only hope of deliverance.
We believe Hilary Swank in this role. She is more than doggedly determined; this is a personal mission. Sam Rockwell is very credible as the once-exuberant convict who can’t help but become cynical, feeling that there’s no point in hoping, because the system will find a way to disappoint him again. The fact that this is a true story makes the engrossing narrative all the more compelling. Throw in some powerful secondary performances (notably by Juliette Lewis), and you have a dramatic movie that’s worth rooting for.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor, Grace Church, Greenville, Texas.