Clemency is 113 minutes long. However, it took me over 2 hours to finish the film as I had to press pause to wipe my face, blow my nose and collect myself back up. I often had to fight the urge to press pause indefinitely or to simply look away, maybe check my emails or Twitter just to get away from the film’s harrowing portrayals of injustice and personal hardships. That being said, I feel profoundly altered by Chinoye Chukwu’s powerful depiction of the crisis that prison warden Bernadine Williams, played with magnificent control by Alfre Woodard, goes through.
The film opens with a botched execution which Bernadine is forced to observe in the name of her job, or as she calls it a profession, something much greater and consuming than a nine-to-five desk job. The execution greatly affects her, but the work has clearly been bringing her down for a long time. Her marriage to the kind, but frustrated Jonathan (always excellent Wendell Pierce) is becoming more and more estranged and it seems Bernadine is only able to crack a smile after half a bottle of whiskey at the local watering hole.
Next in line to face the horrors of an execution by the state is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who retains his defence that he is innocent. His scruffy and committed lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff) has long ago lost his faith in getting Woods free but keeps trying to free his client and vows to retire after Woods’ case. Bernadine is helpless by default, thanks to the gruelling nature of her job but nevertheless affected by the constant grind of her line of work and Woods, who refuses to speak to her, might be the one to break her for good.
Clemency isn’t a gory, or even a violent film, but it will leave you bruised and raw, as if you’ve just been brawling with a guy ten times the size of you. Bernadine isn’t a warm person and there aren’t any big emotions on show here, but Woodard injects traces of humanity into a character that seemingly has already lost all of it. She brings out Bernadine’s constant internal struggles with small gestures, but elegantly nevertheless.
Chukwu pays attention to the smaller, quiet moments that often go unnoticed. What must it be like to know the exact time of your death? To hear your own increasing heartbeat as you’re being strapped down, ready for the final injection that will eventually slow that same heartbeat into a flatline. Chukwu never avoids these questions and her camera never looks away, but never resorts to exploiting the delicate themes she brings forth. Chukwu’s film still oozes compassion, but never pity, even if Bernadine herself can come across as cold and emotionless.
Hodge is equally impressive as Woods, switching from white-hot fury, to devastation and confusion effortlessly and convincingly. A scene between Hodge and Woodard, where Bernadine matter-of-factly goes through the order of his day of execution is agonizing as Chukwu refuses to cut away from Hodge’s ever-changing face as he is forced to confront the fast-looming end of his days. If you thought Hodge was impressive in Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, this should cement him as not only a star, but an acting force to be reckoned with.
The only minor inconvenience in Clemency is its tendency to occasionally dip into melodrama, which it doesn’t need to do, because the plot itself and the creative choices behind the camera are strong enough to convey the crushing reality of the film. While this is a remarkably controlled feature, Chukwu falters ever so slightly now and then, but regardless, this is fine work and an urgent, powerful film that should be required screening to both film students and students inspired to work within the justice system.
Dir: Chinonye Chukwu
Scr: Chinonye Chukwu
Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce
Prd: Timur Bekbosunov, Julian Cautherley, Bronwyn Cornelius, Peter Wong
DOP: Eric Branco
Music: Kathryn Bostic
Country: Unites States
Run time: 113 minutes
Clemency is out on 17th July and will also be available on Curzon Home Cinema