CLEMENCY movie poster | ©2019 Neon

CLEMENCY movie poster | ©2019 Neon

Rating: R
Stars: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, Michael O’Neill, Vernee Watson, Danielle Brooks
Writer: Chinonye Chukwu
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Distributor: Neon
Release Date: December 27, 2019

CLEMENCY, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, is a movie we haven’t exactly ever seen before. There are certainly innumerable character studies, and plenty of movies about death row. But there aren’t many (if any) others from the point of view of the prison warden, and we haven’t met onscreen any wardens like Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard).

Bernadine is thorough and dedicated to carrying out her job by the book. Lately, presiding over executions has been taking a toll on her, much to the dismay of her loving husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce).

There’s a harrowing opening sequence of an execution that would be disturbing even if things went as planned, which they don’t. Now Bernadine is increasingly aware that the next prisoner slated for execution, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), may be innocent of the capital crime of which he’s been convicted. Even if Anthony is guilty, Bernadine is acutely aware that this is a person in her care, whose death she will help facilitate. Her humanity and her duties are at odds, and the conflict is something she can barely articulate or encompass.

CLEMENCY is a very quiet film. While somebody yells or sobs once in awhile, mostly people keep their emotions tamped down here. Likewise, filmmaker Chukwu likes to show us the characters in their environments – a close-up tighter than head and shoulders is rare. Nothing larger than life is presented here, with the result that everything feels extraordinarily lifelike. We feel for Anthony, but we’re asked to identify with the people around him, all of whom are feeling their own lives sucked out of them by their proximity to the death-making machinery.

Woodard is astonishing, conveying unbearable emotions in silence, in the way she holds her body, in the weight of her eyelids. She inhabits Bernadine completely at every moment.

While CLEMENCY focuses primarily on Bernadine, its secondary subject is Anthony. He’s a somewhat more familiar character than Bernadine, but Hodge is no less fully present in the role. Anthony’s battle is to avoid letting anger and despair prevent him from seeing other people reaching out to him. Hodge invests Anthony with a soul that keeps finding its way to the surface, despite his conscious urges towards numbness and disconnection. It’s moving work. Pierce as Bernadine’s concerned spouse, Richard Schiff as Anthony’s primary attorney and Michael O’Neill as the prison chaplain also are excellent.

CLEMENCY is shot and expressed in a way that puts us in the picture and invites us to ask how we would feel in Bernadine’s position, tasked with lawful employment that mandated we interact with people whose deaths we would cause. Chukwu never gives us reason to question the likelihood of anything that happens. The results aren’t easy to experience, but they are very powerful.

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