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?”
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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.