If not a call to arms, then Clemency, from director Chinonye Chukwu (the first black woman to receive Sundance’s Grand Jury prize), is a call to attention.
Exacting and spartan, this death row drama begins as prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodward) oversees her 11th execution, and ends as she leaves her 12th. What happens in between is the slow unfurling of a tightly coiled woman.
Rarely veering from Bernadine’s perspective, it’s as narrow in its focus as the prison corridors it stalks (shot with ingenuity and precision by cinematographer Eric Branco). And this sometimes wears thin. Bernadine is stoic to a fault, unerring in her formality (note how she uses the same refrain to both a death row inmate and his mother as a source of comfort: “We’ll let you know when it’s time.”) and she’s a hard protagonist to penetrate or empathise with, even when the internal crisis between doing her job and doing what’s right begins to bubble over.
Clemency is relentless in its sobriety. Bernadine’s crisp white suits and beige cardigans further reflective of a world without colour, or hope. Both inmates and civilians alike (including her high school teacher husband Jonathan, played by Wendell Pierce, and public defender Marty) seem jaded and dormant. The 12th inmate – Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) – gives a particularly poignant performance as a man whose light has been extinguished long before the state declares it.
Conversations have a tendency to feel a bit rote and lifeless – although a scene with Danielle Brooks (on the other side of the glass) is electrifying for both its writing and performance – and contrivance occasionally rears its head.
Yet Clemency rewards viewers who take note of detail – flinches in movement, the slightest grimace, the jolt of waking up from a bad dream – and Chukwu’s calculations pay off in two potent outbursts. The first, a desperate, self-inflicted, and flinch-inducing act of violence. The second, an emotional reprieve and a jolt from a living nightmare that serves as a welcome gasp of air in a film that keeps you underwater and under its spell for much of the running time.