Clemency is a sophomore feature of quietly assured confidence and fierce morals. Most movies that have a message at its heart contain a multitude of scenes wherein actors rail against the cause de jour. But the director, Chinoye Chukwu, has an unflinching belief in her audience.
She has written and directed a film that is against the death penalty but does not explicitly say so. Chukwu merely shows us the toll state violence takes on those who perpetrate it as well as the anguish and pain it causes those it is meant to punish. It is a film with no easy or glib answers but stands tall in its belief and observation of the humanity of all involved.
Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) has killed thirteen men; not personally but officially. She has presided over her prison decades and has prepared and lived through thirteen executions. Now in the twilight of her life, she finds herself wondering what has become of her as she has had to compartmentalize herself in order to make it through the day.
Bernadine’s marriage has suffered to a near breaking point. She sleeps on the couch and can’t bring herself to be intimate with her husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce). The two have no kids and Jonathan is beginning to think it’s time for both of them to retire.
Jonathan may be thinking it but Bernadine isn’t; though it’s clear she should be. Especially with how much she seems to be struggling with an upcoming execution of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) a young man convicted of armed robbery and killing a cop. Though he admits to the robbery both he and the evidence that we learn suggest strongly that he is not guilty of killing the police officer. Though whether he is or not is never stated outright and that’s the point Chukwu is arguing.
Capital punishment affects all of us; not just the criminals who are killed humanely. Chukwu shows us the cruel irony in the phrase, “humanely”. Clemency begins with an execution as it begins to go wrong. The medic can’t find a usable vein on the prisoner and after exhausting both arms and his feet, suggests the crotch.
Chukwu sits back and watches her characters observe and react to the horrors of the world around them. Lucky for us, and Chukwu, she has Woodard, a legend in her own time. Woodard’s Bernadine is a woman on the edge; a walking raw nerve. The deaths of the men she has overseen have long since taken its toll. At the start of Clemency, she is wondering if she is just a husk of her former self. By the end, she has her answer and it almost kills her along with Anthony Woods.
Woodard’s performance carries Clemency as she goes about her day desperately trying to find happiness in something anything while ignoring that she has to kill yet another man. The weight of all that death is burdensome and she has no one to help with the load. Chaplin Kendricks (Michael O’Neill) offers to listen but she is afraid to confess. She is afraid if she starts she may never stop.
O’Neill is a character actor who specializes in television and movies usually playing the stoic no-nonsense lawman of some sort or another. He does much the same here but as the chaplain and with Chukwu’s help he finds grace notes as a man who while called to this kind of work also feels hollowed out because of it.
Bernadine’s assistant, Thomas (Richard Gunn) is leaving soon to be a warden at a different prison. One where “there isn’t a death row”. The tenor of his voice and the look Woodard’s Bernadine gives him speaks volumes about his relief and her envy and resentment.
In the midst of all this is Anthony Woods and his pending death. His attorney Marty (Richard Schiff) is tired and past hope, though he tries to give some to Anthony, he tampers it with realistic expectations. Everyone in Clemency is worn down to the nub by the sheer moral torpor which much takes place to oversee so much death.
For Bernadine it’s being in charge and having to stand over the men, knowing them, helping them, and watching them die. For Chaplin Kendricks, it’s sitting next to them and being one of the last faces they see before being killed. Marty is just tired, a defense attorney is an immensely all-consuming job but an appeals attorney-it sucks at your marrow. “If I win, my guy gets to not die.”
Chukwu sidesteps the line we expect to follow about the pain of losing. There is no monologue about the one case that haunts him. Schiff’s face says it all as he buys Bernadine a drink and walks away. It’s not just one thing it’s the whole thing that has worn them down to a nub.
Eric Branco’s camera use is spartan as he and Chukwu prefer looking at characters head-on or from the side. Yet, surprisingly Clemency, though clearly benefiting from the theatre work of all involved, never feels like a play. It feels like we are spying on these people as they struggle with their inner life trying to make it through the day, sleep, and do it again.
Chukwu is fearless as she trusts her actors implicitly. The trust allows the actors to convey the thoughts and themes other directors would try to undercut with unnecessary dialogue and exposition. Thus the camera is used sparingly and without flair which could be confused for boring by those not paying attention.
Upon learning the date of his death Hodge’s Anthony begins to bang his head against his cell wall in an attempt to kill himself rather than let the state do it. Branco’s camera sits behind him as the red smear on the wall grows bigger and bigger. The camera is not cold and objective, but rather, filled with pity and sadness.
Hodge and Woodard share only a handful of scenes but what scenes they do share are some of the best. Which considering the talent of the actors involved is saying something. Chukwu understands, like Great Gerwig and Destin Daniel Cretton, how to help her actors create characters from whole cloth. Moments after Schiff’s Marty walks onto the scene we understand and recognize him without any dialogue or musical references.
Clemency is a dour and deeply intelligent moral interrogation of the type we don’t see much anymore, or indeed if we ever have. Chukwu is asking questions without asking the questions outright, merely showing us what witnessing so much death and causing so much death can do to a person’s psyche. It is a film filled with a haunting sadness and honest conviction that stays with you long after the movie has ended.