In Clemency, Alfre Woodard is quietly devastating as a weary prison warden presiding over her twelfth execution, in this Sundance-winning death row drama.
Chinonye Chukwu became the first black female filmmaker to win the top prize at Sundance Film Festival with this unsentimental death row drama.
The film opens with experienced prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) overseeing a lethal injection that goes agonisingly wrong.
Botching ‘the procedure’ heightens scrutiny over her next execution, of convicted cop killer Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) who maintains his innocence.
Woodard delivers a stunning performance as methodical authority figure Bernadine, whose necessary professionalism has made her emotionally unavailable to husband Jonathan.
No amount of after-work drinking will make the nightmares stop and she’s not alone.
Her exhaustion is mirrored by Woods’ dedicated lawyer Marty, in this precisely calibrated portrait of capital punishment’s ethical corrosion.
Cukwu immediately grabs the viewer by the throat and never seizes to let go.
As the film progresses, it feels like a noose tightening each passing minute… Almost intentional for us to resonate with both the protagonists on screen.
From the first frame, we identify Brenadine’s conflict.
At one instance, she sternly looks at the lethal injection bed and this scene is sharply cut to another where she a weeping mother.
Even a moving bird’s eye view shot of Bernadine’s car moving is coincided with the moving shots of prison rooftops sufficiently convey her lengthy, never-ending journey of psychological trauma.
Clemency – the film’s title does not solely highlight the legal term, but it carries more significance to each character and is not limited to Anthony.
For Bernadine, her ‘clemency’ is retirement… Which could serve as a second chance in living life rather than constantly being faced with the emotional and psychological burden of death row.
Chukwu presents a balanced account of the criminal justice system. A sequence which supports this is when Bernadine informs Anthony of the execution procedure.
Despite both are separated by bars, this accurately summarises both ends of the spectrums of the law in an objective manner.
Hollywood prison films frequently follow a stereotypical template in which the warden is showcased to be evil – who gains a sadistic pleasure by inflicting pain on the prisoners.
Another stereotype is that the prison warden usually sympathises with the inmate so much that they take it upon themselves to prove their innocence.
Also, in some prison dramas where the accused is black, their saviour and sympathiser are typically white. Remember A Time To Kill and The Green Mile?
Thankfully, this is not the case here and does the movie ‘romanticise’ between an outsider and inmate like Dead Man Walking.
Here, we see the perspectives of two black Americans and in such a way where the narrative solely relies on emotions. It is good that the movie avoids veering into being anti-death row campaign.
In fact, this film does for America what Delhi Crime did for India as it presents a very human side to the law keepers of the country… At the same time, it does not invest much time in the poignancy of it.
The movie is convoluted in exhibiting how the job of a death row warden can have personal, professional and psychological repercussions.
As a viewer, one becomes invested in Woodard and Hodges’ performances.
Alfre Woodard, firstly, rightfully deserves a standing ovation for her depiction of a tormented prison warden.
She is consistent and owns each frame with her maturity as an actor. Woodard truly brings life to Bernadine.
Her body language, expressions and dialogue delivery are just so on point. This is definitely an Oscar-worthy act.
Given that the wave of women empowerment has taken centre stage in Hollywood, a formidable role like this definitely contributes towards this rising trend.
Aldis Hodge is on par with Woodard… Especially when it comes to the emotional/breakdown scenes… His sensibility as an actor translates well on the screen.
Clemency‘s limitation is the fact that it is very hard-hitting and morbid.
The dark tone is omnipresent, which lingers on way after the credits and on top of that, many scenes are deeply upsetting to witness.
Having said that, this is one of the finest prison dramas in American cinema.
For the sheer acting prowess of Alfre Woodard and an objective storyline with strong human interest, Chukwu deserves applause.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5 stars)