Movie Review: Clemency (SIFF 2019)

Clemency is about the warden of a prison, Bernadine, who carries out the executions of her death row inmates. After a mistake during an execution, Bernadine is shaken and tries to cope with her next scheduled execution. Anthony Woods is a man who maintains his innocence in the crime he's intended to die for, which permeates the doubts Bernadine is already feeling about her profession. The film stars Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, and Wendell Pierce. Clemency is written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu

This film could be a play. It's dialogue heavy, there are minimal locations, and lots of symbolism that make it hard to justify as a cinematic experience. There is a lack of a significant visual style, but what it lacks in flashy techniques or big set pieces, Clemency's actors are its best special effect.

Wendell Pierce is excellent as the put upon husband. In his best scene, Pierce is in his classroom reading out loud from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. The juxtaposition with the subject of the book of being black in America, the faces of the students that are no older than Woods when he was sentenced to death with the idea of the school to prison pipeline, and the way Pierce's Jonathan feels about being an invisible fixture in his wife's life plays out all on Pierce's face. Pierce is able to pack so much emotion into just a movement of his eyes and lips.

Also in a supporting role is Richard Schiff, an actor with tremendous range. He has two speeds in Clemency that he's able to engage with perfectly. He has those scenes of bluster and righteousness, but where he shines are his scenes with his client. Schiff's Marty is known to be powerful, but as he understands the powerlessness of his situation the performance of Schiff comes alive. He has that humanity that's rarely reserved for any lawyer character. He takes it all personally and it plays upon Schiff's every expression. He's a versatile actor and he matches every emotional beat in every scene in just the right way.

Then there's Aldis Hodge who plays the condemned Anthony Woods. He's able to run the gamete with this performance showing the intense hope and despair in the roller coaster of the last days of his life. More often than not we see him in silence. His face tells us everything we need to know. His tears, his frustrations and his anger are fierce and incredible. Every time he was on screen I was staring with rapt attention wanting to take in each micro movement as it was played to perfection.

Of course, if I want to mention perfection, that definition must include Alfre Woodard's name. As Bernadine, Woodard has internalized her intensity, though she lets it slip out in dribs and drabs when Bernadine is losing control. This performance is about control and maintaining an ideal environment, but it shows that control can't be maintained. Bernadine loses herself along the way to this, her twelfth execution. Woodard plays every sides of this experience exceptionally well and while I won't reveal her final scene, I will write that it is a visual I will never get out of my head and one of the most stunning moments I have ever seen acted on film.

Clemency's point of view is in its emotional core not in the logic of the legality surrounding the death penalty. It seeps into your skin and shows you the perfunctory nature of death in the penal system, the sterility with which our government ends human life, and lets you draw your own conclusions. It's a film I think you should see and think about often. It's one that will stay with you for hours afterward. Mark your calendars now as Clemency will be released in theaters December 27th, hopefully with an awards push for its spectacular performances.

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