2019, R, 113 min. Directed by Chinonye Chukwu. Starring Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Michael O'Neill, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, LaMonica Garrett.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Jan. 24, 2020
Clocks figure quite prominently in Chinonye Chukwu’s latest film. Because is not the clock always ticking? Is not time marking our mortality by those hands moving inexorably forward around a circle of numbers, demarcating our lives? And how do you live when you control those lives? Bernadine Williams (Woodard) controls those lives. As a prison warden, she oversees the executions of death row inmates, and the weight of that responsibility hangs heavy, although she hides it quite well behind an implacable facade of composure she is increasingly finding hard to remove.
After an opening sequence of a botched execution that goes harrowingly wrong, Clemency establishes its tone quite quickly, one that mirrors the life of Bernadine. It is one of clipped and workmanlike scenes of her life. It is grim, overseeing the deaths of prisoners. There is one such prisoner, Anthony Woods (Hodge), scheduled for death, who may or may not be a murderer. It is this thread that forms the bulk of the story as forces descend upon him, both good and bad, and those forces have an increasingly haunted affect on Bernadine. As Anthony faces his inexorable fate at the metaphorical gallows, hope becomes something, clemency becomes something. What makes Chukwu’s film so compelling and ultimately all the better for it is the sustained restraint the filmmaker and her team have for veering away from the usual preachy aspects of depicting prison life and death row inmates.
But this is Woodard’s show, and her Bernadine is mesmerizing as she navigates her life of meting out justice while grappling with the price of it. It is a very heavy price, and the film, while wrenching, does not stray from its course of showing the ways in which the structure of prison institutions create scars and negate lives at a moment’s notice. “I am alone, and no one can fix it,” Bernadine says at one point. It’s a chilling thought, but one that ultimately rings quite true. The clock ticks on, until it doesn’t.