Clemency

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Clemency
"Despite the raw power of its performances, the film suffers from an impulse to spell out some of its points." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

In all the discussion and debate surrounding the death penalty, there’s one factor that rarely comes under consideration: the sheer mental toll it has on those who must carry it out. You can’t have executions without wardens, prison guards, lawyers and their families. Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency dives into the anguish, false hopes and psychological numbness that accompanies these duties.

For good and bad, this isn’t the kind of movie that provides relief through grandiose gestures or easy outs. It’s about humans who are sliding toward an inevitable conclusion, whether they’re the one being executed or not. And it’s as sombre as the subject matter suggests.

The movie’s greatest asset is its star Alfre Woodard, who plays Warden Bernadine Williams. It’s rare for Woodard to be anything short of brilliant, but even by that standard this performance stands out. Her character is a consummate professional who runs her death-row prison with precision and consistency. Her days include passing anti-death-penalty protesters outside the perimeter, discussions of who will be allowed into the execution, meal planning with the sentenced prisoners, arguments with the victims’ families and legal discussions with defence attorneys.

Bernadine doesn’t decide who will be executed, or whether they’ll receive clemency. She sees her job as giving the prisoners’ dignity and running things by the book. But her goal fails during the gripping opening sequence, in which a botched execution ends in horror rather than peace. Faced with this gruesome sight, Bernadine is forced to close the curtain on the viewing room, but doesn’t have that luxury for herself. This incident fuels her depression, but you get the sense that it’s not the sole cause. Rather, seven years of working toward one execution after another has eaten away at her soul. It’s driven her away from her husband (Wendell Pierce), and her colleagues can’t even get her to talk about anything besides work when they go out for drinks.

As one execution takes place, another comes up in the queue. Bernadine learns that her prisoner, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), has lost his judicial appeal and will soon be executed. Anthony’s attorney Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) serves as a foil to Bernadine. He too has spent his life on death row, trying to get people off it, and he is ready to retire once this case ends. His job is one that more frequently than not ends in failure. A clear theme emerges that no matter how you interact with the system, it will wear you down.

Despite the raw power of its performances, the film suffers from an impulse to spell out some of its points. It sometimes feels like each of the characters’ through lines were built on the same template of woe. Even a tender moment between a struggling couple that could have served as a respite get interrupted to remind us of the main point. The film is at its best when Chukwu’s allows the actors’ performances to shine, and is more honest with the characters than they are with themselves.

Reviewed on: 08 Apr 2019
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Years of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on prison warden Bernadine Williams. As she prepares to execute another inmate, Bernadine must confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, ultimately connecting her to the man she is sanctioned to kill.


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