“CLEMENCY” opens with an agonizingly difficult scene and is definitely not for the faint of heart. We are watching a man die. Actually, incorrect. We are watching Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo) being served his death penalty execution sentence by injection where a good vein cannot be found for the needle and it’s going horrifically wrong in every which way possible. A scene so horribly difficult to watch that no amount of squirming or covering of the eyes will ever quite be enough to un-see it. This horrific opening scene leads us into Chinonye Chukwu’s second film with a point of view rarely shared, a non-political look at the emotional toll something like this takes on those who must carry out the sentence.
Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is the female Warden of a prison in Texas where death penalty sentences are carried out per the courts orders. Bernadine’s job involves dealing with every thing from family members, protesters, lawyers, the media, picking of guards and medical staff, overseeing the procedures, even final meals. statements and last rites performed in conjunction with Chaplain Kendricks (Michael O’Neill). She performs these tasks in a very professional manner while trying to maintain a sense of duty and responsibility, in a seemingly matter-of-fact tone that comes across. This portrayed stoic persona is taking a toll on her life both personally and professionally. She drinks to much, fails miserably at having even the most basic of normal conversation, doesn’t sleep much which leads to more drinking and problems in her marriage to her husband Jonathan (Wendall Pierce), a high school teacher who dreams of them retiring together and taking a much needed sabbatical.
In the aftermath of the horribly botched execution, Bernadine is tasked with having to prepare for the next execution of convict Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) and is under pressure to make sure the same mistakes don’t happen. From the Deputy Warden Thomas Morgan (Richard Gunn) to Prison Major Logan Cartright (LaMonica Garrett), most every person she tries to have help, expresses a desire to walk away and this speaks clearly to the burden associated with the tasking of carrying out the sentencing. In the meantime, Woods, a death row inmate for now for 15 years and with his execution date fast approaching, is feeling the desire to try to leave behind something besides a legacy of his life of crime for his son to remember him by, and for some closure. Hope rises from him with a visit from his former girlfriend Evette (Danielle Brooks), sadly, as she expresses to Woods what it is she needs, that hope is crushed as well.
Despite his claims of innocence, his confession that he was there but did not commit the crime he is convicted for, and critical evidence showing he was not the one who killed the police officer, Woods’ attorney Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) informs him that his last strand of hope is a decree of clemency by the governor as all legal appeals have failed thus far. The rest of the movie’s parts work within each other to show the toll the past and present executions present and how they all must confront the demons put in front of them. Anthony’s lawyer character, equally damaged by not being able to save Anthony after putting all he had into it, tells him that this is to be his last case as he is on the verge of retiring, but not because he wants to, but because he simply can’t handle the despair of his job anymore. Hodge puts forth an almost non-verbal performance with his unspoken words reflecting his pain almost more than if he had spoken them. There are some moments between prisoner and lawyer that are touching and strong, especially as you realize that well, simply put, this isn’t going to have a happy ending.
But let’s be clear whose movie this really is and that is of course Alfre Woodard. Her ‘Bernadette’ is strong, but oh so pained and flawed. But yet she embraces her with every look, every nuance of this quiet performance is almost loudly done with micro moments that are seismic in the overall perspective. Only the character of Bernadine’s husband seems a bit thinly sketched here jumping into arguments and leaving Bernadine to cope on her own while in clear turmoil. Leaving the performances aside for a moment as the film itself misses something that’s hard to put a finger on. Maybe it’s the overuse of the jerky movement of the handycam in one nauseating scene where the roving camera didn’t fit in well, Maybe it’s the conflicted narrative at times, as we sometimes lose track of what exactly the film is leading us to. Is it Bernadine’s shifting attitude towards laws themselves or is it losing her composure with what the executions toll is taking from her emotionally & physically. Or is it about Anthony isolation for so many years and facing his impending death. Or we could go so far and make it about his lawyers impending resignation. Some of this leaves us hanging without balance, but once again it’s such a performance driven film and without said performances it wouldn’t be nearly so powerful that you almost forget you wished all of the characters were just people you wanted to like, but couldn’t grasp doing so.
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Media Review Screening: Tuesday, December 3, 2019 ~ Courtesy of 42 West
“CLEMENCY” WILL BE OUT IN SELECT THEATERS ON DECEMBER 27, 2019