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With: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, Vernee Watson, Michael O'Neill, LaMonica Garrett
Written by: Chinonye Chukwu
Directed by: Chinonye Chukwu
MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing material, and language
Running Time: 113
Date: 12/27/2019

Clemency (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Gray of Execution

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Austere and resonant, this drama about the horrors of the death penalty roots itself in a vivid, pain-wracked, soul-tired main character and still manages to get its message across without preaching.

In Clemency, prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) prepares to execute yet another death row inmate, but something goes horribly wrong, and the prisoner dies in agony. The incident casts a pall over everything, as Bernadine tries to hang onto her crumbling marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), and deals with the constant harangue of protestors outside her office. She also spends too much time at the bar, drinking too much, and doesn't sleep much anymore.

Next in line to be executed is prisoner Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), whose kind but wounded lawyer, Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), is determined to help any way he can. As the time approaches, it becomes clear that there's more than just a man's life at stake.

Woodard's devastating performance in Clemency is quiet and controlled as her warden tries to maintain a sense of duty and responsibility, aside from personal feelings. But her gaze as sits blearily on the couch at night, or when she drinks too much at a bar and fails miserably at having a normal conversation, reveal untold depths of anguished humanity. There are moments when she is so far gone she doesn't even respond to "warden," and only wakes up when her name, "Bernadine" is called.

Yet the rest of the movie's moving parts work amazingly well, too. Schiff's lawyer character is equally damaged, on the verge of retiring, not because he wants to, but because he simply can't handle the despair of his job anymore. His moments with Hodge's prisoner are amazingly touching, especially as we realize that this movie, simply put, is not going to be one of those exciting thrillers with a last-minute rescue call from the governor. (Only the character of Bernadine's husband seems thinly sketched, a little too quick to jump into dramatic arguments with her.)

Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, the very quiet Clemency climaxes with an unforgettable moment of supreme quietness, as the camera lingers on Bernadine's face, and for a long moment, we witness terrible things happening to the remains of her soul.

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