Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 25, 2020)
A dark drama, 2019’s Clemency takes us to a prison that houses inmates on death row. Longtime Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) has supervised many executions, but the latest one goes wrong.
Faced with extra scrutiny due to this mishap, Bernadine finds herself even more on edge than normal, and she struggles with the stresses of her job. As she attempts to cope, she needs to prepare for another execution.
Convicted of murder, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) nears his date. He clings to hope that crusading lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) will manage to stave off his impending demise, but the clock ticks away and leaves less hope.
With Anthony’s fate up in the air, Bernadine tries to go about business as usual. However, after so many years on the job, her duties take a psychological toll that she may not be able to address.
If that sounds like Clemency will offer a grim downer, then you interpret the film correctly. While not utterly devoid of any lightness or humor, this remains a nearly entirely somber tale.
Which makes sense. Focused on its characters, Clemency takes its subject matter seriously and ensures that the audience feels the pain and damage involved.
Clemency punches the viewer in the gut right out of the box due to that botched execution. While not as graphic as the infamous electric chair scene from 1999’s Green Mile, the opening scene in which condemned prisoner Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo) fails to go quietly into death creates a jarring, disturbing introduction to the tale.
Matters get no less dark from there, as the rest of Clemency remains somber. While we spend much of our time with Bernadine, we also get to know Anthony and invest in his case, as the movie makes it pretty clear that he’s innocent.
Part of me wishes that Clemency focused entirely on Bernadine, as the scenes with Anthony feel a little tangential. The movie really tells Bernadine’s tale, so the nature of the inmates’ issues shouldn’t come to the fore.
That said, I understand the choice to involve Anthony, as the movie otherwise might not come with much drama. It seems clear that Bernadine will carry out her duties despite any potential misgivings or doubt, so Clemency needs to find other ways to exploit tension, and our investment in Anthony’s fate fulfills those domains.
This threatens to turn Clemency into a trite prison drama, but the general emphasis on Bernardine gives it a twist. Due to flicks like Green Mile, it’s not unique to get a movie that concentrates on the prison staff, but I think the choice of the warden adds a spark, as we’d usually focus on the rank and file guards.
Also, Clemency obviously lives in a much more real world setting than Green Mile. That one seemed more like a fantasy/fable/metaphor than a hard-hitting prison drama, whereas Clemency exists to create a hard-hitting look at justice today.
Even though the story leans a little toward the tried and true, the actors elevate it. Woodard got robbed of an Oscar nomination, as she provides arguably the best performance of her career as the troubled warden. She avoids pitfalls and never asks for the audience’s sympathy as she creates a believable take on the role.
As good as Woodard is, I think Hodge provides the best work in Clemency. Utterly heartbreaking as the condemned prisoner, Hodge creates a delicate performance that never betrays a false note. Though he started his career as a kid in 1995’s Die Hard With a Vengeance, Hodge hasn’t attained stardom yet, but acting like this should elevate him.
I wouldn’t recommend that you watch Clemency after a bad day at work, as it won’t perk up your spirits. However, it offers a deep drama with substantial emotional impact.