“Clemency”–No Mercy or Absolution

What’s the psychological and moral cost to a society that administers the death penalty?  That’s the question raised in Clemency, the winner of the Sundance drama award last year. 

So much more than a “death-row drama” ,  Clemency shifts the lens to the impact of  bureaucratized human cruelty:  a scathing portrait of the toll the process of administering an execution has on prison staff. We see how they are not executioners but bureaucratic cogs in a horrible machine of death.

Sixty-something Bernadine (the remarkable African American actor Alfre Woodard in an Academy Award-worthy performance) prides herself  on  her professionalism in presiding over a dozen lethal injection executions. But the compartmentalization of her professional and emotional life is beginning to unspool.  The first half of Clemency focuses on a perfectly impassive blankness and rigidity that masks Bernadine’s emotional self.

She’s experienced something no human should– a dozen times.  The unnerving and opposing forces wrestling inside Bernadine’s mind begin to be magnified as we witness her heartbreaking need for redemption, etched on her face as if her feelings are surfacing for the first time. Something has broken in Bernadine.   And her  marriage to empathetic schoolteacher Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is lost.  She can no longer process her world separate from being a warden.

Clemency‘s central plot includes a death-row inmate’s perspective–Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge in a career-defining performance)–who has been in prison for fifteen years:  accused and convicted of killing a police officer during a robbery.  As his appeals for clemency filed by his deeply committed lawyer (Richard Schiff) have been denied,  Anthony Woods is also complicated and emotionally shut down.    Both Bernadine and Anthony Woods are  maddeningly emotionless  and flawed.   Bernadine’s womanhood and blackness are inextricable from her sense of professionalism, but she cannot be reduced to either.   And Anthony Woods,  a young black man, never rages about possible injustice. The viewer wonders:  Who needs the clemency more?  The warden or the prisoner?  Maybe it’s both.

A lot of performances get praised for subtlety that are merely wooden or impassive. Alfre Woodward is a phenomenon to behold!  With the subtlest of facial movements, she conveys not only what she is feeling but how it feels to be feeling what she has to feel.  In a camera close-up lasting over three minutes, her face held this viewer in a way both unforgettable and unimaginable.   Alfre Woodard is the reason to see Clemency.  She simply possesses the space, the screen, every scene…and your heart.