×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Clemency’

Alfre Woodard plays a warden at a maximum security prison whose spirit is challenged by the nature of her job in this moving death penalty drama.

Director:
Chinonye Chukwu
With:

Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brooks.

1 hour 53 minutes.

Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) has executed 12 death row inmates, and each one seems to get harder. During the lethal injection that opens writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency,” the paramedic can’t find a vein, the grieving mother is sobbing through her prayers, the anti-capital punishment protestors are chanting outside, and when the stent fails and the prisoner goes into convulsions, Bernadine is forced to close the curtain on the family and journalists observing the man’s final moments. It’s all awful and bitterly ironic, from the crucifixion position of the doomed man to the way Bernadine leans over at the last minute to ask if she can get him anything. To make sure the audience, too, is in agony, Chukwu silences everything but the sound of fumbling death: buckles, strangled breathing and the beeps of the heart monitor until it’s clear the man is dead.

You won’t be able to see the time of death on the warden’s face. Bernadine prides herself on being professional, almost mask-like in her commitment to procedure. She orders her guards to practice strapping each other onto the gurney, asks the condemned what they’d like for their last meal — vegan? steak and lobster? — and calmly talks them through “the procedure,” down to the chilling line, “At that point the medical personnel will confirm the execution is complete.” Mostly, she and her prisoners wait for the inevitable, and Chukwu ensures we feel every slow second, including the nights Bernadine stays up till dawn watching infomercials on depression until her husband (Wendell Pierce) accuses their marriage of flatlining. “I need a pulse!” he pleads.

But the next inmate in line for the needle, convicted cop killer Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) — a quiet man who draws birds and comes to life only when his lawyer comes to visit — shatters the warden’s composure. And once the waterworks start, her sobs (and those of several other characters) flood the rest of the film, nearly all of them shot in static close-up with the light hitting their tear droplets just so. If Woodard is hoping for her overdue second Oscar nomination after 1983’s “Cross Creek,” she’s got a decent shot with this excruciating character arc. Yet, the actress is even better in the scenes where Bernadine simply gets drunk, even if she still can’t talk about anything but work. When the man she calls Deputy (Richard Gunn) begs her to change the subject, Woodard waits a beat and tries, “How’s your … children?”

In those moments, Chukwu shows us the woman Bernadine used to be before she was tugged in opposite directions by the victims’ families and the defense lawyers who want to do right by their clients. Anthony’s lawyer (Richard Schiff) challenges Bernadine’s dispassionate obeisance to the law. Yet, it’s not clear what he, or the film, expects her to do. While a warden is supposedly in charge of her prison, she’s powerless to save the lives of the condemned. She didn’t sentence the prisoners — and she can’t pardon them, either.

If Chukwu just wants the audience to witness Bernadine’s burden, the script overplays its hand by questioning Anthony’s guilty conviction. The added doubt muddies the movie’s message. Either capital punishment is wrong on principal, since it kills both the prisoners and the spirits of those tasked to carry out the sentence, or it’s just wrong for one possibly innocent man.

To the film’s detriment, there’s no sense that Anthony could truly be a murderer. To Chukwu, he’s simply a man who dreams of flight. In one tracking shot, the camera spins in circles as he paces the perimeter of his outdoor cage, and when it pans up, even the ceiling is steel. Later, in the film’s slowest, but most powerful scene, Anthony  is visited by a woman from his past played by Danielle Brooks (“Orange Is the New Black,” who in one of her first film roles announces herself as a major presence). For a moment, it’s possible to forget every other character in the film. But when Chukwu refocuses her attention on Bernadine, the final moments of “Clemency” make it clear the warden’s is the soul that needs to be pardoned.

 

Popular on Variety

Sundance Film Review: 'Clemency'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival — competing, Jan. 27, 2019. Running time: 113 MIN.

Production:

An ACE Pictures Entertainment presentation, in association with Big Indie Pictures and Bronwyn Cornelius Prods. Producers: Bronwyn Cornelius, Julian Cautherley, Peter Wong, Timur Bekbosunov. Co-producer: Fiona Walsh Heinz. Executive producers: Kathryn Bostic, Johnny Chang, Emma Lee, Alfre Woodard.

Crew:

Director, writer: Chinonye Chukwu. Camera (color): Eric Branco. Editor: Phyllis Housen. Music: Kathryn Bostic.

With:

Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brooks.

More Film

  • Margot Robbie Big Ticket Podcast

    Margot Robbie Was 'Pretty Rattled' After Reading the 'Bombshell' Script for the First Time

    Margot Robbie took to Twitter to prepare for her role as a conservative news producer and aspiring broadcast journalist for Fox News in “Bombshell.” “Understanding her upbringing and her point of view on politics in the world, that really took me a minute,” Robbie says on today’s episode of “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s [...]

  • Randy Newman My First Time

    My First Time in Variety: Randy Newman

    “What?! My god.” This is Randy Newman’s reaction upon learning of the first time he ever appeared in the pages of Variety, back in May of 1965. That was three years before he released his first album as a singer-songwriter, at which point he began steadily accruing fans of his warped musical character sketches until [...]

  • Kiri Hart Stephen Feder Ben LeClair

    Rian Johnson, Ram Bergman Expand T-Street With Producer Trio

    Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman are expanding their T-Street studio with Lucasfilm veterans Kiri Hart and Stephen Feder, along with Ben LeClair. Johnson is best known for directing and writing 2017’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which Bergman produced with Kathleen Kennedy. The duo is teamed via T-Street on the upcoming “Knives Out,” starring Daniel [...]

  • Branko Lustig

    Branko Lustig, 'Schindler's List' Producer and Holocaust Survivor, Dies at 87

    Holocaust survivor and Academy Award winner Branko Lustig, who nabbed best picture Oscars for “Schindler’s List” and “Gladiator,” has died at his home in Croatia. He was 87. His death was announced on the website for Festival of Tolerance, which Lustig oversaw as president since 2008. Lustig was born in Osijek, Yugoslavia, in 1932 to [...]

  • Frozen 2

    ‘Frozen 2’ Reviews: What the Critics Are Saying

    Early reviews are in for the highly anticipated “Frozen 2,” and the sequel stands its ground amid lukewarm responses. Currently sitting at 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, “Frozen 2” has released to mixed reactions, the main sentiment being that while the film is unnecessary, Disney has released another money-maker that knows how to satisfy its audience. [...]

  • The Way Back Trailer

    'The Way Back' Trailer: Ben Affleck Struggles With Addiction in Basketball Drama

    Ben Affleck struggles with sobriety in Warner Bros.’ first trailer for his sports drama “The Way Back.” Affleck plays construction worker Jack Cunningham, who has a routine of drinking at every opportunity — in the shower, at work and at home. That routine is interrupted when he’s asked to coach the high school basketball team [...]

  • Mark Koven Music

    Film Composers Tap Into Offbeat Inspirations for Scores

    An electro-acoustic cello for a comic-book villain. Sampled whistling for young revolutionaries in a Latin American jungle. A German rendition of a Beatles song for a satire on the Third Reich. A retro synth score for the tribulations of a gambling addict. Angry, dissonant music for two men alone in a 19th-century lighthouse. Avant-garde saxophone [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content