CLEMENCY (Chinonye Chukwu). Opens Friday (January 17). 113 minutes. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Clemency joins Just Mercy as yet another recent movie about men on death row. But where Just Mercy paints a black-and-white story about racism and injustice within the justice system, Clemency dwells in the grey, and feels all the more honest and powerful for that reason.
The colours are drab. The mood is dour. And the film is all about the people at a maximum-security prison who try to bleed the emotions out of death.
Alfre Woodard plays Bernadine, the prison warden tasked with marching convicted men calmly and efficiently through their last rites. Her job is to be as rigid and firm as a soulless bureaucracy. She instructs her prisoners on what they can and can’t do the day they die as if walking them through a travel itinerary.
She has to ignore the cries for mercy from her prisoners, their lawyers and the protesters just outside the penitentiary walls. There’s a flip side to that. She also has to maintain the same cold composure when confronting victim’s families who want to get the most from the death penalty.
Clemency is undeniably Woodard’s show. Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu makes it that way, using her own largely invisible hand to train our eyes on the performance while using Bernadine as a guide through death row’s nuts and bolts. We’re constantly looking to Woodard for some answer or sense that is repeatedly denied as her character exercises self-control in harrowing circumstances, fighting human instinct at every turn.
To do her job, she has to be dead inside. When her shift is done, Bernadine drags her own carcass back home to a husband (Wendell Pierce) who still yearns for feelings.
The film kicks off with a horrifying botched execution, which is what chips away at Bernadine as she prepares the next inmate for execution: Aldis Hodge’s Anthony Woods.
As the lawyers fight, the protesters yell and his victim’s family make their moves, Anthony looks to Bernadine’s cold demeanour and tries to meet it. His futile attempt at snuffing out his own emotions before the system takes his life is what finally wrecked me.