Opening with a blood-freezing look at a death row execution, Clemency starts heavily and only rarely lets you up to breathe from there. Chinonye Chukwu’s Sundance-conquering look at the barbaric inhumanity of the American justice system is oppressive and devastating, doing more with silence and empty space than with words, anchored by two quiet yet supreme performances from Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge.
After the medic assigned to the 11th execution of prison warden Bernadine Williams’s (Woodard) career botches the job, Bernardine starts to unravel, especially as the 12th, of possibly wrongly convicted cop killer Anthony Woods (Hodge) is rapidly approaching. Wisely, Chukwu doesn’t require us to empathise too deeply with Bernadine, given that her job makes her a monster, but instead places up deep within her world, catching the debilitating spiritual sicknesses that come with it.
Woodard’s performance is powerful without being showy or melodramatic, using her natural severity to sell both the inhumane strength and piercing regret in Bernadine’s soul. It’s a superb transition to being a lead after a career spent mostly in supporting roles, one that’s sure to be noticed in a major way come awards season. Hodge is just as good as the doomed Woods; his displays of raw fear whilst prison officials clinically describe exactly how he’s going to die are profoundly affecting.
Clemency, even if it can’t quite grant Woods hope, gives him a tremendous amount of humanity and dignity, absolutely vital in a film with subject matter that could easily be handled in a fatally tactless way.
Leaving the cinema after the credits roll, you’ll feel a genuine heave of relief. To live in its hellish world is unpleasant at a gut level, but it’s with this exact level of anger and power that a story like this needs to be told.
CAST: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce
DIRECTOR: Chinonye Chukwu
WRITER: Chinonye Chukwu
SYNOPSIS: 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.