There's a heavily trafficked shortcut to critical "seriousness" that goes something like this: Steven Spielberg is a "manipulative" director who does a disservice to the rhizomatic language of movies by whittling it down to a reflex hammer and then tapping at our knees until we kick. I added my footprints to this path back when I believed pleasure was a cinematic sin, before I noticed Godard using a similarly blunt instrument to root around in my head. This should go without saying, but it is rather gratifying to experience a range of predictable emotions triggered by basic cinematic conventions over a finite stretch of time, and Conviction, ably directed by Tony Goldwyn, is humbly smart enough to limit its ambitions to providing just such an agreeable experience.

If that sounds like an overly clinical way to praise a work of art, well, Conviction might as well have been written by a solar-powered calculator, and the autonomic responses to its rigorously graphed narrative are more akin to cell-level absorption of nutrients than aesthetic revelation. This simple tale of sibling chivalry stars Hilary Swank as a blue-collar mom who pursues a law degree in the hopes of one day representing her wrongly convicted brother, played by Sam Rockwell with his usual high-tension-wire reactivity. The hurdles come at Olympic-standard intervals, scenes last just long enough to impart a single salient detail each, none of the actors forgets a line or laughs at inappropriate times, and I felt emotions like sadness, relief and happiness. I even got goosebumps four times, which means Goldwyn made a rather effective hammer, and good for him—the world needs hammers. R.



opens Friday at Fox Tower.