The death penalty is currently one of the most densely nuanced topics in American society, an issue that presents both moral, economical and judicial stakes that present a bevy of arguments from a range of viewpoints across a vast spectrum. Some believe it should be enforced harshly, while others think that there is no need for it in any circumstance, with a vast, cold desert of gray area separating the two houses. Director Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency, a favorite of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, seeks to forge an arduous, but accessible trail through the pale abyss of state-sponsored executions from the damning and the damned.
Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is a warden of a men’s prison in an undisclosed state where the death penalty is legal. Under her tenure, she has overseen 12 executions of prisoners via lethal injection. After a botched execution that left her authority as an effective leader in question, her morals are challenged when she must immediately oversee the execution of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a convicted murderer with doubt cast on his guilt and public uproar looking to tear Williams’s views of life and work apart seam by seam.
Clemency is a film that relishes its quiet moments of intimacy with its characters, but doesn’t always know what to do in how it chooses to comment on the morality of the capital punishment system. It’s a film that is, by-and-large, built solely around the performance of Woodard, who delivers a grounded and powerful performance of a woman at the end of her rope, struggling to comprehend what validates the human experience. This is an Oscar-worthy performance that in any other year, would leave Woodard a shoo-in for the award (and if I had it my way, she’d be near the front of the pack if the film was being marketed more aggressively). It’s a career-best for Woodard that gives her a character of immense depth and sympathy (or lack thereof in some cases). She’s a character that’s not easy to love, and one that many Black women of a certain age do not get the luxury of playing in their lifetimes.
Still, there’s a visual astuteness to Chukwu’s direction that, despite the cold, unforgiving settings and static nature of the film, she manages to know when to play her cards and when to fold them. There are a few missed hands when it comes to making things feel truly unique, but in a film so heavily reliant on the power of its lead performer, Chukwu does Woodard some major favors. Woodard is an actress who carries her strengths and weaknesses in her face; whether it be the ever-so-slight widening of her eyes when trying to hold back the burden of emotion in her professional life, or the lip quiver when she doesn’t know how to respond to the terror being thrown at her, Chukwu does a wonderful job framing Woodard in making sure that these nuances are captured in the intimate, and often times torturously long, shots fixated on her.
It’s when Clemency seeks to expand upon the gaze of Woodard that the film struggles to keep up under the weight of its own potential. It doesn’t feel like the film has much to say beyond wanting to paint a picture often unseen in a narrative film. While this creates a unique structure for the film to stand within, the complexities of the death penalty, both in a political and personal standpoint, often feel underserved within the relatively short runtime. There simply isn’t enough time to fully explore the issue that the film seems to want to tackle outside of a single case, which works well to keep things feeling intimate and claustrophobic within the prison, but doesn’t make a lasting impression after the credits roll.
The film also fails to make use of Bernadine’s personal life as a side-plot. The moral dilemmas presented in the film to Bernadine feel like hers and hers alone, and involving other parties (including a criminally underserved Wendell Pierce) feels tacked on and unnecessary in the grand scheme of the film’s story. Beyond that, there are scenes alluding to a public outcry of Anthony’s pending execution that feel like they could’ve used more definition from the screenplay if only to paint the scale and societal importance of the whole drama in a way that would help the film flesh out more of Bernadine’s conflict and Woods’s suffering from more than just a superficial angle.
These things in no way make Clemency a bad film by any means. They just lead the final product to feel unfinished in comparison to the absolutely stellar central performance that carries it to such heights at times. Still, there’s a sleek film with power that outweighs its shortcomings in the final moments. One can only imagine what it would feel like if the entirety of the film was treated with such astute precision. Chukwu possesses this power, and I await her next project to see if she can realize it in an even more efficient way.
In theaters December 27th, 2019.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.