In a month that sees the release of two death row dramas, Clemency is the more minimalist of the two. It is especially spartan when compared with the fact-based Just Mercy, which, while not exactly a legal thriller, does involve a dose of courtroom theatrics of the sort one might expect from a movie about a crusading lawyer’s fight to exonerate a man falsely accused of murder.
Clemency, on the other hand, covers the same subject from a different point of view, but it is deliberately internal, taking place, in a sense, almost entirely inside the head of a single person. Which is why it’s good that this person is played by Alfre Woodard, who, as Bernadine, is a longtime prison warden who begins to question the morality of capital punishment after a botched execution. She makes us feel something while burying her own character’s emotions so deeply that they become like toxic waste.
The state of denial she’s in has some consequences, most notably (and a bit melodramatically) in the form of her deteriorating relationship with her husband (Wendell Pierce). At work, however, Bernadine is all steel.
Until, at last, she isn’t. Woodard’s performance as a woman at the point of cracking is the reason to see this film, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu (A Long Walk).
Like Just Mercy, which tracks the efforts of a lawyer (Michael B. Jordan, in the role of attorney Bryan Stevenson) to clear the name of a death row inmate (Jamie Foxx), Clemency ostensibly revolves around similar efforts. Here, they concern a doomed convict (Aldis Hodge) and his attorney (Richard Schiff), whose fight to forestall a fatal sentence is reaching the end of the line. But mostly, this story focuses on Bernadine.
In encounters with her deputy (Richard Gunn), with the prison chaplain (Michael O’Neill), and with the crime victim’s parents (Vernee Watson and Dennis Haskins) — who happen to oppose the death penalty — we are granted a window into how the taking of a life has been regimented and compartmentalized. Such tiny tasks as the sorting of a last meal request, or the bloodless rehearsal of the fatal injection, become fraught with sensation: rage, grief, despair, sympathy, remorse, and adrenaline all competing for space in a surreal performance of punishment and atonement.
All this centers on the face of Woodard, a mask of stoicism that, over the course of almost two hours, finally betrays Bernadine, revealing what is really going on behind her seemingly dead eyes.
Clemency, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, isn’t really a death row drama in the same way that Just Mercy is. Rather, it’s a character study of a witness who, vicariously, is a stand-in for each of us.