‘Clemency’ Compellingly Reflects on the Toll of Watching Over Death Row

Clemency” takes a different sort of walk down death row. It focuses on the person overseeing the entire process, and asks what kind of toll distributing death for the state can have on a person emotionally. Where other films would settle for violence or thriller clichés this one goes for somber reflection. Alfre Woodard provides an example of acting through quiet tension, where a well of emotion slowly rises to the surface. 

Woodard plays Warden Bernadine Williams, who oversees a men’s prison and watches over death row inmates as they eat their last meal before being led to the fatal injection. She’s so used to the routine she carries it out like a cold checklist. Then an execution gets botched and Bernadine is forced to watch the agonizing death of a prisoner. The poor execution haunts Bernadine and even some of her staff. But there’s another inmate scheduled for death, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who still maintains his innocence. Woods’s lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff) is making last minute appeals as the clock winds down. Losing sleep, wondering if Woods is indeed innocent, Bernadine begins to realize that watching death over and over has taken a profound effect. Whether she can endure yet another execution becomes an urgent question as Woods faces his final days.

Director Chinonye Chukwu makes a strong feature debut with “Clemency.” Mostly a director of shorts, Chukwu doesn’t expand the narrative further than it should go to make its point. There’s almost a claustrophobic ambiance as she keeps us within the walls of the prison where Bernadine works. Only momentarily do we venture out to see a bit of Bernadine’s life with husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), who is eager to retire and pushes Bernadine to do the same. He doesn’t seem to understand why Bernadine can’t sleep, or the unsettled way she talks about work. As framed by Chukwu, prison loses its typical cinematic sensationalism. Here it is somber, enclosing and full of sadness. When Bernadine and her team rehearse the Woods execution, one of the guards can’t take it, still rattled by the previous botched execution. Like “Dead Man Walking,” this is a movie that takes the issue of the death penalty seriously, giving it a human angle.

Alfre Woodard plays the warden with a sharp professionalism, in the sense that she has the air of someone who does their job well and with focus, but is slowly coming apart inside. She asks Woods what he would like for a last meal, checking boxes on a document as if processing any regular order. As Marty continues to push for clemency from the governor Bernadine quietly seems to have a flicker of hope grow, maybe she won’t have to kill this very young man. One of the great moments for Woodard takes place during an execution, where all we need to see are the tears flowing down her face as the process is carried out. This is genuine acting, devoid of any false tricks or theatrics. 

There are no heroes or villains in “Clemency.” Chukwu’s screenplay can possibly be seen as a subdued protest against everything the death penalty entails. We never get the cliché flashbacks to Woods’s crime, and while he is sympathetic he’s also not portrayed as some unjustly condemned angel. In another searing moment his ex-girlfriend Evette (Danielle Brooks) comes to pay him a visit and Woods is convinced she’s there to make amends and confirm he still has a family. What follows is a conversation of raw, unforgiving honesty. Refreshingly these are not cartoon characters, speaking or acting like the many thriller personas we see every year. The writing could be taken out of any true life testimonial.

“Clemency” is a rather somber movie to drop in the heated awards season. It refuses to follow the avenues of an easy, action-oriented story. But it’s a strong drama that asks what life is like for the executioner. By the end it’s obvious Bernadine doesn’t want to do this anymore and it’s not hard to see why. Chukwu meticulously shows us what happens inside an execution chamber, with the bed and needles, the audience watching from behind glass. Now imagine having to do this again and again whenever a prisoner’s turn has finally come. Some jobs are hard not just on the body, but the heart as well.

Clemency” opens Dec. 27 in select theaters.