Clemency (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A calm, sobering drama on death penalty

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“Clemency”, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival early in 2019 but was unfortunately overlooked shortly after its limited theatrical release in US around the end of the same year, will shake you hard for good reasons. While never feeling preachy or overdramatic, the movie lets us understand and emphasize with its conflicted heroine going through her soul-crushing professional duty again, and her sobering psychological drama will make you reflect more on whether death penalty is really necessary or not.

At the beginning, the movie phlegmatically observes the latest execution to be done under the supervision of Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), who handled no less than 10 executions as a prison warden. As the time for the execution approaches minute by minute, she calmly and methodically goes through every step of the procedure, and, once she is notified that the inmate to be executed will not be pardoned by the state governor, she embarks on the final step along with her prison guards. While a number of people including the inmate’s devastated mother are watching from the space next to the execution room, she and her prison guards wait for a while just in case, and then the inmate is allowed to leave some final words right before the execution begins.

Unfortunately, a minor complication happens in the middle of the execution, and, though the job is eventually done as instructed, that incident begins to settle Bernadine’s mind, which turns out to have been quite exhausted behind her staunch appearance. At her home, her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) tries to get closer to her for not only comforting her and but also saving their estranged marital relationship, but she refuses to open herself to her husband even while feeling number day by day, and that certainly frustrates him a lot, especially when he attempts to persuade her to retire for both of them.

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In the meantime, there comes another execution to be done, and Bernadine dutifully prepares for that as before. We see her discussing with her staff members on the schedule for the execution. We see her having a meeting with the lawyer representing Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), the inmate who is about to be executed. We see her asking Woods about what he wants for his last meal before the execution. A group of people protest against Woods’ execution outside the prison everyday, but that seems to be the last thing to concern Bernadine, and she is determined to keep herself straight from the beginning to the end.

However, she cannot deny that she has already felt unsettled and conflicted more than before, but there are not many people who can listen to her and then understand her. Her husband is surely willing to know more of what has been eating her mind, but, as she correctly points out to him during one scene, he cannot possibly understand her emotional circumstance because he does not know how it feels like supervising an execution. Her deputy warden and the prison priest understand a growing psychological toll on her mind, so she can talk a bit with them, but, not so surprisingly, they are also getting pretty exhausted just like her.

The movie also pays some attention to Woods, who becomes quite devastated and depressed once he is notified of his final day to come. His lawyer, a weary old man who genuinely cares about him, frankly admits to him that there is nothing he can do for now except trying hard to get the pardon from the state governor at the last minute, and that drives Woods into more despair and depression. When someone in Wood’s past is trying to meet him again for a personal reason, he becomes consoled a bit, but then his eventual meeting with that person turns out to be not the one he hopes for.

Eventually, the movie arrives at its inevitable narrative point, and it continues to hold itself firmly with detached restraint while never stepping back from a series of emotionally intense moments. While cinematographer Eric Branco’s camera dryly establishes the stark atmosphere coupled with the sense of dread on the screen, the ambient but mournful score by Kathryn Bostic subtly conveys the tragic aspects of the situation surrounding Bernadine and Woods, and we come to brace ourselves more for what we are going to observe from them.

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As the heart and soul of the film, Alfre Woodard, who also participated in the production of the movie as one of its executive producers, gives a restrained but undeniably compelling performance which somehow got overlooked during the Oscar season in last year. Although she does not seem to signify anything on the surface, Woodard gradually reveals to us her character’s inner turmoil without overemphasizing it at all, and that is the main reason why a certain close-up shot of hers during the finale is utterly spellbinding. The camera merely looks upon her face for a while without showing anything else, but, thanks to Woodard’s deft acting and expressive face, that is more than enough for us to sense and emphasize with her character’s trembling emotional status.

Woodard is also supported well by several notable performers. While Wendell Pierce, who has been one of my favourite character actors since I noticed him from HBO TV series “The Wire”, is believable in his several scenes with Woodard, Richard Schiff effortlessly embodies his lawyer character’s jaded idealism, and Aldis Hodge, who has been more notable since his breakout turn in “Straight Outta Compton” (2015), is simply heartbreaking as a man who desperately reaches for any comfort and consolation before his final day.

On the whole, “Clemency”, which is the second feature film by director/writer Chinonye Chukwu, is a powerful piece of work which deserves to be compared with other similar drama films such as Tim Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking” (1995). Although this is indeed a tough stuff to watch, it is one of the better films of last year, and I think you should check it out as soon as possible.

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