There’s little room to breathe in writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s constricting, devastating drama Clemency, an intentionally airless film processing a tough subject through an unusual viewpoint. It was the deserved big winner at Sundance this year, making Chukwu the first black woman to win the Grand Jury prize, and now lands at Toronto, with more awards in its sights. Our protagonist is prison warden Bernadine (Alfre Woodard), first seen as she prepares for an execution, methodically going through her mental checklist with calm professionalism while keeping emotions at bay. It might be her 12th but experience only seems to make the process that much harder, a growing awareness that the system she’s a part of might not be something she truly believes in.
Any back-burner doubt she might have had soon turns into something far less avoidable after she bears witness to a horrifyingly botched lethal injection. Bernadine is sent into an inner tailspin as she confronts her guilt while also prepping for the next execution, this time for an inmate who insists he’s innocent.
There’s an unbearable specificity to the opening of Clemency not just in the grim minutiae of a state-sanctioned killing but in how we see Bernadine cope with resisting her instinct for humanity. She coldly pats a death row inmate’s tearful mother on the arm, avoiding a clear need for affection, and despite the impossible circumstances that then play out, she retains a stiff composure as everything around her crumbles. But there’s a cost to this repression and we see it in her home life, which feels every bit as claustrophobic as the prison, making us question exactly which of the two provides her with more of an escape. She’s grappling with a slow-burning PTSD of sorts, one that can’t be understood by her loving, worried husband, played by The Wire’s Wendell Pierce, and one that she soaks in alcohol every chance she can get.
There’s also an unspoken awareness that Bernadine is a woman working in a male-dominated workplace, one that’s tougher than most, and she knows that any shred of visible emotion would be seen by those around her as feminine weakness, a harsher judgement she’s also unable to escape. She’s heading towards some sort of self-destruction but Chukwu avoids easy cliche, pacing her film with a patience that echoes reality rather than artifice. I would argue that her only major slip-up would be an unnecessary reliance on some clumsy dream sequences that hammer home Bernadine’s internal anxieties in a way that feels extraneous. The film around them does enough legwork and they prove distracting rather than affecting.
But it’s a slight misstep in what’s otherwise a bleakly effective character study as well as a damning indictment of a barbaric and unjust system. We’re accustomed to seeing Woodard impress in the background, whether it be with charm in Heart and Souls or menace in Luke Cage, but rarely do we see her take centre stage, and it’s this history of quietly impressive scene-stealing that has given her more than enough preparation for carrying a film as difficult as this. It’s a nuanced, deeply felt performance that relies less on dialogue and more on the subtleties of movement, whether it’s in the battle to walk down a prison corridor feigning an assured strength or in how to deal professionally with a potentially innocent death row inmate desperately in need of a human connection. As the latter, Aldis Hodge is also excellent, at times heartbreakingly so, as he edges closer to his execution with the painful awareness that he’s leaving little behind.
Like Woodard, his dialogue is minimal and the film’s sparseness might frustrate some who find it all too muted, especially given the subject matter, but there’s a quiet yet righteous anger that’s impossible to ignore, especially in the crushing finale. Clemency’s end credits arrive with relief, not because we’re unengaged but because, unlike Bernadine, we’re finally allowed to breathe.
Source: The Guardian