Directed By Chinonye Chukwu
Starring – Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff
The Plot – Years of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on prison warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard). As she prepares to execute another inmate, Bernadine must confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, ultimately connecting her to the man she is sanctioned to kill.
Rated R for some disturbing material, and adult language.
– Immersive presentation. From the very get-go, the film establishes depth in its minimal varied settings that follows our characters faithfully, like the ominous cloud of consequences that shower over each of them. For one, the color scheme for the film is intentionally bland, mirroring the darkness that is virtually inescapable from the film’s impactful screenplay. Likewise, the limited approach of the film’s musical score from composer Kathryn Bostic allows us the audience to soak in as much about the prison environment, which in turn further illustrates the perils of isolation from the many inside who subdue themselves to it. The music is used sparingly enough, choosing to remain reserved for the moments that move the story along rather than enhance the dramatic tension that its cast alone earn. Bostic’s compositions are emotionally stirring, but never intrusive, and it’s the kind of unabashed focus to the story that keeps the attention firmly where it needs to be at all times.
– Shot versatility. The combination of Chukwu’s vision combined with cinematographer Eric Branco’s experimentation gives “Clemency” one of the more absorbing experiences in death row setting cinema. The decision to craft everything tightly, constantly reminding audiences of Hodge’s inescapable claustrophobia is effectively rendering without it feeling forcefully repetitive in its dependency. Likewise, the additions of long-take sequences, as well as individual framing for characters sharing the same scene is one that goes a long way in accomplishing the isolation that two characters from completely different dispositions share at that particular moment. One such scene involves Woodard and Hodge speaking to each other about the latter’s final opportunities at clemency, and it’s remarkably shot because neither of them share the frame at any point during the scene, which never alleviates the way this situation has left either of them plagued by loneliness.
– Thought-provoking. While this screenplay isn’t as heavy on the ideals of the death penalty, it conjures up more than enough room for discussion on psychological traumas and overall helplessness that proves our justice system is anything but a perfect science. The decision to make the warden anything other than the same cartoonish villain that is expected in these films is one that is refreshingly nuanced, but it’s the decision to instill resonance of this dreaded day to her life routine that proves this sentence is anything but singular in its aftermath. We see this not only in her complete lack of a home life, but also in the way that her mental capacity feels overwhelmingly distant when communicating with supporting cast at any given time. The script is wise enough to follow the warden and the accused simultaneously throughout, depicting each of them with dramatically different freedoms, all the while feeling linked by this inevitable heft of consequence that links them closer than a lesser helmed movie ever would.
– Creative choices. I appreciate these more than anything, because it incorporates set pieces and props in a way that adds to the compelling drama without selling away too much of the authenticity that is often lost in the element of filmmaking. The heart monitors of the inmates being brought to their final resting place is one that stands as a catalyst for creating tension. As the moment draws closer to finality, we hear this enhanced element of production increase with intensity, which in turn adds emphasis of dramatic flare for a movie that is almost entirely predictable. The constant beeping is a modest reminder of what’s to come, and even puts us in the shoes of the accused, fleshing out the vulnerability and urgency of their predicament in a way that pits us as close to them as we would naturally entertain.
– Double duty. As the writer and director for “Clemency” Chinonye Chukwu helms what is perhaps her most important film of her storied career, bringing along a mostly black production of men and women behind the scenes that feels therapeutic in the many social injustices that minorities face everyday. Chukwu’s unorthodox style of storytelling values the situation more than it does the characters. This would normally be compromising to attaching ourselves to their stories and respective subplots, but the entirety of the film is steered with this wet blanket of dramatic enveloping, which not only allows plenty of room for the talents of the actors to persevere, but also reminds us that all of life’s permanent choices are often left out of our hands. This makes Chinonye one of the more socially aware directors of our time, and has allowed her to carve out a filmography that marries the worlds of reality and film accordingly to give opportunity to the kinds of people who we know exist but don’t often think about because of our protective realities. It makes her one of the more daring voices in a generation of breakthrough artists.
– Riveting performances. In the lead position, Alfre Woodard gives perhaps the single greatest performance of her career, embodying this warden in a way that wears her work on her face and demeanor every single day. Woodard’s facial capacity is asked a lot here, and she’s happy to oblige, giving us carefully meticulous progressions in a way that makes it easy to read what’s going on inside. This very much feels like a woman who has done this job for a long time, and is only a fraction of the commitment that Alfre dedicates towards transforming into her mind, body, and soul. Nearly equally as strong is Hodge’s work as Anthony Woods, the second straight wrongfully accused convict that he has played in a year. His work here over last year’s “Brian Banks” is even more accommodating, fleshing out a character whose trysts with hope really leave you crippled for the inevitability that rears its ugly head every single time. Hodge is making a reputable name for himself early on, but I am curious to see what he can do outside of a character with correctional terms. Richard Schiff is also Oscar-worthy as Anthony’s jaded lawyer. A man with the responsibility of juggling the hope to keep Anthony’s head high, all the while succumbing to the world surrounding him that constantly reminds him what’s coming.
– Supporting cast. I wanted to make this a separate addition to the positives, because this movie has no shortage of familiar television actors that are given breakout chances to rid themselves of the typecasting that a generation has labeled on them. One comes from a popular Netflix show that also has ties to being set behind bars, but the other two are straight out of the NBC 90’s world of teenage comedies, somewhere between Bayside High and Bel-Air. Not only was I flabbergasted to see these actors in a movie this dramatically entailing, but I also consider their inclusion anything but a coincidence, considering they are cast together in both scenes they invade.
– Haunting final shot. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll leave my words as cryptic as possible. The end of this film depends less on showing what we’ve all prepared ourselves for, and more on the lasting impression that stems from it. This is where the long-take sequence really comes into play, as an edit isn’t made for nearly four whole minutes, and feeling like a clearly definitive breaking point for a character in cinema if I’ve ever seen one. Nothing here feels even remotely exploitative, making its R-rating kind of unnecessary classification. But even beyond that, it’s impressive how emotionally stirring the scene is considering it’s communicating so little visually to us the audience, and instead relying on our reading of the tone and speed of the storytelling contained inside. Some will consider it anti-climatic, but I feel it’s one of the more permanent reality endings that I have seen in quite sometime.
– Slow spots. Because of the nature of its meticulous storytelling, there are no shortage of ambiguous gaps in between the ends of this film, particularly during the second act, which keep us barely hanging on to the intrigue and sizzle of the narrative. That’s not to say that the film should cut any of its 101 minutes of screen time, but rather the editing could be a little tighter in compressing as much momentum about the scenes they are needed in, if only just to keep too much air from letting out. It’s already a difficult enough sit with material so depressing, so if the pacing isn’t nearly perfect with it, it can allow in these moments of down time that allow its audience to grow restless while waiting for something intriguing to take place.
– Speculation. For my money, I could’ve used more emphasis on the unraveling’s of Anthony’s case with regards to investing further in the character. Too many instances during the film bring this up in news briefings or lawyer discussion without ever further elaborating on the more loose ends of the case, and it creates a plot hole in the logic of the story that demanded more time be addressed towards it, so that we the audience could understand how or why he was possibly framed. The skewered details give off the impression that the case itself isn’t important, which undervalues its importance to understanding and investing in the character. The tragedy of the situation preserves much more about the execution than approaching it at an ambiguous level ever could, and adds more meat in the details of the story to sink your teeth into.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+