The Movie Waffler New Release Review [VOD] - CLEMENCY | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [VOD] - CLEMENCY

clemency review
In the aftermath of a botched execution, a prison warden becomes troubled by her work.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Chinonye Chukwu

Starring: Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Danielle Brooks, Michael O'Neill, Richard Gunn

clemency poster

Prison Warden is a profession that hasn't exactly been treated with nuance by movies over the decades. With the notable exception of Robert Redford's Brubaker, cinematic wardens have generally been portrayed as one-note sadistic villains, and if they happen to be female they'll most likely display predatory lesbian tendencies towards female inmates. Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu eschews any such clichés in Clemency, her patient and quiet study of a woman warden in an American prison that's home to a death row.

The warden is Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), whom we're introduced to as she oversees the twelfth execution of her career. Just as horror movies often open with their most gruesome set-piece to keep us on edge for the rest of the film, so too does Clemency, the difference being, this is state-sanctioned murder. Along with Bernadine and those gathered in the observation dock, we watch as a lethal injection procedure is botched, resulting in a couple of minutes of pain and distress for the condemned man before his passing. Bernadine puts on a brave face, but we can see something twitching within her as she observes this barbaric practice.

clemency review

The potential thirteenth victim of Bernadine's reign is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a hulking, laconic man sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer during a robbery. Woods maintains his innocence, as does his crusading but crumpled lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff).

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles ]

In the weeks leading up to his execution, Bernadine begins to question Woods' innocence, but if you think this is a conventional piece of liberal filmmaking about a battle for justice, you're mistaken. Chukwu's film never objectively clarifies whether Woods committed the crime he's set to pay for, and even though there are doubts in Bernadine's mind, she's too committed to her profession to act upon them.

clemency review

As played so brilliantly by Woodard, Bernadine is a fascinating character, both the film's protagonist and antagonist. For those of us who oppose the death penalty, she's a villain, as complicit in evil as an unquestioning guard at Auschwitz. Thing is, Bernadine doesn't realise she's a villain, and for all we know she might oppose capital punishment herself. She's simply keeping her head down and getting a job done, as cold towards the families of the men whose lives she helps take away as she is to those of their alleged victims. Her temperature barely rises in the company of her loving husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), whom she refuses to open up to, preferring to spend her evenings sterilising her soul with alcohol at a local bar.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Come As You Are ]

Since her early days working with Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph, Woodard has been quietly gifting us with great performances, but she's rarely been granted a stage like this. Bernadine is a laconic woman, so Woodard uses body language to flesh out her character. She always looks deeply uncomfortable within herself, as though she never knows where to put her hands or where to avert her eyes. In a chilling shot towards the end, Chukwu holds her camera on a close-up of her leading lady, and like Bob Hoskins at the end of The Long Good Friday, we can see the entire film play out in the clenched muscles of her face.

clemency review

Equally great is Schiff. His lawyer Marty is on the edge of retirement and Schiff similarly uses his gait and posture to communicate his state. Both Bernadine and Marty walk with something of a hunch, as though emotionally crippled, one by their victories, the other by their losses.

You can imagine this being made in France with Isabelle Huppert in the lead role, or even in the UK with Helen Mirren, but American cinema rarely gives us films like Clemency, which dare to focus on the internal life of a complicated character against the backdrop of what should be a very uncomplicated moral issue.

Clemency is on UK VOD now.

2020 movie reviews