Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency” is as emotional as it is tense, almost on the level of a thriller by William Friedkin. It is existential and blunt, taking on one of the most eerie and difficult subjects: capital punishment. The film is certainly among the most anxious and might not be for everyone, but it is also excellent.
The film is a character study of Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden who oversees lethal injections. She is taciturn and deliberate, walking poker-faced and stern. Williams is a Grim Reaper with perfect lip gloss. The prison respects her; she conducts her job with impartial decorum, and she is feared.
An inmate, Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo) is strapped to the fateful crucifix gurney. The man is clearly terrified saying The Lord’s Prayer. There is no emotion on the warden’s face. Suddenly Jimenez wakes up with terrible screaming spasms. The IV clogged. Despite the horror, the man passes away, given enough poison.
The next night Warden Williams can’t sleep, vexed with silent guilt.
She goes out drinking.
Williams’ teacher husband (Wendell Pierce) is deeply unsatisfied, often wanting romance, giving her a near ultimatum on their anniversary.
Williams attempts to keep her composure and somewhat manages but there is another imminent lethal injection ahead.
The apprehension in this film never subsides, especially when one sees Anthony (Aldis Hodge), a man who clearly does not deserve his death row sentence. His face, a rictus of pain and worry that can also bubble into hope—wondrous carbonation—benevolent and spiritual. Not since Johnny Depp has there been such expression in a face, all without a single word.
As a summation of the film, however in all its conflict, Woodard’s gaze says it all: stoic, aghast, and let down by life choices.
Warden Bernadine becomes an isolated space traveler to herself and all. The hard right angles of the prison landscape become her only bed.
“Clemency” is propulsive, honest and gripping. Though it is just as much a character study as it is a meditation on capital punishment, it is one of the best films I have seen on the unthinkable subject, and it will have you feeling restless far into the night.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org