At a time when movies can be reverse engineered to generate awards season buzz, “Clemency” provides a welcome alternative: a mature star-driven vehicle elevated by a brilliant performance that deserves all the awards it can get. As icy prison warden Bernadine Williams, Alfre Woodard embodies the extraordinary challenges of a woman tasked with sending men to their death, while bottling up her emotions so tight she looks as if she might blow. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s second feature maintains the quiet, steady rhythms of a woman so consumed by her routine that by the end of the opening credits, it appears to have consumed her humanity as well. But over the course of the devastating process of preparing for another execution, Woodard injects the drama with the tantalizing possibility that humanity might creep back in.
No matter the strength that Woodard brings to her role, “Clemency” is a tough sell from its harrowing opening minutes, in which Bernadine oversees the twelfth execution of her long tenure and witnesses it go horribly awry in front of a petrified crowd: Blood spurts, the body contorts, and Bernadine’s staff is traumatized. Chukwu captures the setup for this shocking accident in disturbing clinical terms, establishing a mood of the haunting psychological portrait to come.
Bernadine was already a cold, humorless overlord, but the backlash to the execution only makes matters worse for the next victim in line. Anthony Woods (a restrained Ailds Hodge) retains his innocence for a homicide charge from years ago, and as the deadline for his execution looms, his frumpy, aging lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff, purposeful and wise) has started to lose his sense of commitment. In a series of tense exchanges with Bernadine, he rails against her lack of empathy for the prisoners even as he acknowledges the lost cause at hand. “You can’t save the world,” she sighs. “That’s the problem,” he replies.
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In Bernadine’s view, she has a responsibility to treat the death sentence in professional terms, but that philosophy is at odds with the job at hand. In a pivotal scene, she describes the mechanical details of Anthony’s planned execution while he cries in silence, and the disconnect establishes the extent to which Bernadine has learned to obscure her sympathies to a near-psychotic degree.
All of which means she’s not exactly well suited to be a supporting wife to her frustrated husband (Wendell Pierce, in a calm, measured turn). “Clemency” stumbles into more conventional melodramatic plotting as it chronicles Bernadine’s troubled marriage, but the actors never overplay their arguments, and their troubles certainly make sense in the context of Bernadine’s mounting pressures at work. As media attention grows and protestors gather outside the prison, it’s inevitable that she’ll reach some kind of breaking point — but even she lacks the power to save Anthony from the likelihood that he’ll die soon enough.
It can be a suffocating experience to sit with such downbeat circumstances for nearly two hours, and “Clemency” does push the limit. Even Chukwu’s insightful screenplay can’t justify a tangential conversation between Bernadine and the aging chaplain (Michael O’Neill), or the handful of redundant conversations as the movie creeps toward its final act. But that bumpy middle section gives way to the mortifying suspense of the climactic moments, as the clock ticks down to Anthony’s execution and the likelihood of a magical reprieve continues to fade.
Meanwhile, the movie leaves room to explore Anthony’s own struggles, as he veers from utter despair to tentative optimism and back again. In a fleeting scene as Anthony’s estranged partner, Danielle Brooks delivers a devastating monologue that puts Anthony’s past in context, as well as the movie’s themes. While “Clemency” doesn’t overstate the role of race in its scenario, it inevitably becomes a subtle thematic foundation as Bernadine contemplates her role in Anthony’s imminent death. As with Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere,” Chukwu’s movie bemoans the endless of cycle of broken families caused by a system that puts black men behind bars on autopilot.
Beyond that, “Clemency” illustrates how systematic execution can destroy both ends of the equation. Woodard portrays Bernadine as a shell of a woman a few shades shy of robot. Going out for drinks with one of her peers, he says, “You suck at conversation!” Throughout “Clemency,” it’s clear that Bernadine has lost touch with the essence of human connection because her job so often requires her to end it.
Chukwu maintains an impressive command over her material, but Woodard herself becomes the movie’s central storyteller. The final shot is a galvanizing snapshot of her internal battle, and possibility that it might finally make its way to the surface. While the title of “Clemency” may refer to the literal prospects of escaping death row, it’s equally invested in a personal quest for the exoneration of the soul.
“Clemency” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in U.S. Dramatic Competition. It is currently seeking distribution.