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.
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Writer: Chinonye Chukwu
Stars: LaMonica Garrett, Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge
“Clemency” is one of the toughest films playing in the Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition this year, but with its tactful and rich world-building for its story about the death penalty, it’s also one of the best. Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu uses calibrated artistry across the board to tell a sensitive story about a prison warden’s very challenging position of power, its performances providing unforgettable faces for those whose lives circle around capital punishment.
In a stunning opening scene, we see a lethal injection go wrong, requiring different needle placements and horror for those who have been selected to watch. It is not a peaceful route to the desired result. All the while, Alfre Woodard’s Warden Bernadine Williams remains impossibly stoic as she stands over the man. It’s just one moment in which you see the control that she has over this place, a woman caught between a clear pride she has for her work that has elements that continue to wear down on her. Throughout the film, Woodard is brilliant in how she shows a woman who does not easily let her guard down in a job that demands so much of her strong spirit, something that affects her relationship with her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) and can be challenged whenever she interacts with the prisoners that she knows more like a caring teacher than someone just working a job. When Bernadine does reach her breaking point, after later seeing the tragedy of her work, it’s a masterful display of a face failing to beat its repressed emotions, and Chukwu holds on her face for a stunning minute-long close-up.
But more than just about Warden Williams and the prison she watches over, the story is about a life we see in the headlines: Aldis Hodge’s Anthony Woods, a man sentenced to death for the killing of a cop, which he insists he didn’t do. Hodge carries on the film’s exhilarating ambition to express feelings that are unconscionable outside of a prison cell, like when he silently processes that he is finally about to die after a visit from Woodard’s character and then aims to smash his head against a concrete wall. Later, he helps “Clemency” show the tragedy of men like Anthony, as he gets a glimmer of hope that he might belong to a family, and clings to that fantasy while waiting on a message of clemency from the governor. One of the best supporting turns at Sundance this year, it’s an incredible physical and emotional feat.
Within Chukwu’s impressive work with this material, she populates the story with concrete themes as explored by side characters who revolve around Warden Williams, and fill in the world of “Clemency.” Wendell helps paint a sense of the sometimes silly, but conflicted home that Warden Williams can return to, and has a striking moment in which he quotes Invisible Man to his high school students, while Chukwu shows us glimpses of listening faces. Anthony’s lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff), brings a tenderness to the job as another person who cares about Anthony, providing a friendship to him as much as hope of saving his life. And Michael O’Neill, as Chaplain Kendricks, offers a sense of the spiritual peace that comes with such a job, as if a lifeline for Warden Williams as someone who has also seen the same horrific things that she does on a daily basis. Chukwu unites these characters, vivid and excellent roles for each of these actors, under the theme of finality—all of them proclaim to Warden Williams that they want to retire, as if they have reached their own end with being in the same world as capital punishment.
“Clemency” is that little miracle of filmmaking, a story that answers to unthinkable tonal and narrative challenges it sets for itself by providing a clear vision. The cinematography by Eric Branco becomes its own life source, finding expressive lighting and framing within the drab setting of a prison, making corridors of cells seem all the more endless. Chukwu’s film is further proof that great moviemaking is key to bringing audiences into profound, somber head spaces and places of employment.
– Nick Allen, Rogerebert.com