Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 53 min.
Release Date: December 27th, 2019 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Chinonye Chukwu Actors: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, Michael O’Neill, Danielle Brooks, Richard Gunn
n an unfriendly, clinical, dimly lit, mostly undecorated sitting room at a corrections facility, Mrs. Jimenez awaits news of an upcoming execution. Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is in charge of delivering the ultimate message concerning Jimenez’ son, Victor, who isn’t lucky enough to be granted a merciful stay. As Chaplain David Kendricks (Michael O’Neill) presides wordlessly at first, a heart monitor beeps ominously, and a paramedic administers an intravenous drug – initially ineffectively – before the condemned man eventually breaks down in tears. After the third injection (this time in his abdomen), a curtain is withdrawn to allow onlookers and reporters to take note, while Victor recites a prayer, steadily slowing his words until he drifts off.
The opening sequence is utterly horrifying, demonstrating a trying situation made more exasperating by the general inefficacy of the lethal injection procedure and drugs. It’s expertly shot and exceptionally tense, though audiences are never made aware of what Victor’s crimes were. Because of this, sympathy lies solely with the inmate, which is a questionable yet understandable decision. “Clemency” obviously isn’t advocating for the death penalty, despite keeping its distance from outright statements about abolishment. Regardless, the realism is monumental.
Bernadine’s career, forcing her to handle the incomparable difficulties of confronting mortality and the loss of freedoms on a daily basis, takes its toll on her family life (with husband Jonathan [Wendell Pierce]) and even her basic conversational skills when off the clock (such as with her deputy warden, Thomas Morgan [Richard Gunn]). And it certainly affects her ability to sleep peacefully. She’s a by-the-books administrator, focused intently on keeping order, ensuring safety, and following the rules, which puts her at odds with the lawyers battling for their clients’ rights and hopes, including Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), who is helping death row convict Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). “I have treated him like a human being!”
In the case of Woods, it’s revealed that he’s a burglar and cop killer, which changes the unevenness of audience empathy (though the victim’s family receives negligible screentime). Still, Williams doesn’t feel as if she has any choice in the matter; she’s merely carrying out orders from people higher up the ladder. It’s entirely up to the political process whether or not appeals or a reprieve are granted. After those options expire, she has no say. Comparatively, viewers must digest the stark hopelessness and thought-provoking end-of-life routines with tied hands; desiring a happy ending doesn’t make it happen.
The film proceeds to dissect the ins and outs of the process of lethal injection, from rehearsal, to the three-drug cocktail (one to render unconsciousness, one for paralysis, and the final one to cease heart function), to witness selection and a last meal and burial choices (or other disposal methods). Many of these details are discussed directly with the inmate, lending insight into the petrifying notion of such bleak finality. It’s an incredibly scary demonstration, designed to show the severity – and the emotional consequences – of taking a human life, even in the context of supposed justice.
Of course, Anthony’s particular case is complicated by ambiguity; a radio report in the background suggests that he may not have been involved in the murder of the police officer. Yet that’s not really the point, since the statistics of exonerations across the U.S. indicate that numerous innocent people have been – or would have been – executed for crimes they didn’t commit. It’s a fact that the system isn’t foolproof. But viewers aren’t given much of a choice; they’re guided toward being on the side of death penalty abolition (and surely the opening sequence is enough to make even staunch supporters of the penalty think twice).
Additionally, the characters are static for a considerable amount of time; Anthony is set to be Bernadine’s 12th execution and she keeps her emotions strictly in check. This makes it difficult to appreciate the weightiness of the subject matter, since the personas are so steeped in immutable gloom. It hinders the pacing, too; there’s only so much rigid despondency and seemingly self-inflicted powerlessness (or, at least, a chosen position of unchanging impotence) that audiences can endure.
Plus, the narrative itself is conflicted. Is this tale about Bernadine’s growing psychological discord with the state’s laws? Is it about her shifting attitude toward carrying out her duties or her failing composure in the face of those fatiguing responsibilities? Or is it about Anthony coming to terms with his isolation and impending death? Or perhaps a last-minute governor’s clemency issuance could transform it all into a legal thriller? Or maybe it will conclude with something utterly inexplicable like in “First Reformed”? Regardless of its direction and storytelling, however, the acting is excellent (particularly Woodard and Hodge), even if the characters aren’t written with traditional, fiction-based range. Their commitment to austere sincerity is unquestionably commendable, even if the eye-opening realism doesn’t produce consistent entertainment value.
– Mike Massie