The prison warden played by Alfre Woodard in “Clemency” is the definition of a hands-on manager. Instead of staying in her office and insulating herself from the rituals of death row,
stands over a condemned man in the lethal-injection chamber and watches impassively as a medical tech tries to find a vein in what becomes a botched execution. Chinonye Chukwu’s deeply serious, often mournful second feature—she made her debut with the 2012 “alaskaLand”—explores the ties between Bernadine and her death-row prisoners. The parallels are hardly exact. They die, she doesn’t. But the work she does is draining her own life, and the film tracks the inexorable process.
Ms. Woodard is superb, as always, in a role that sets up a formidable barrier between character and audience. We understand what’s happening to Bernadine, but it’s hard to have any sense of dramatic release because her repression is almost unrelenting. If she acknowledged fully what she’s feeling she couldn’t do her job, so she continues to do it strictly by the book, even though, after hours, she drinks more than she should with her young deputy,
and her marriage is coming apart. “I’m living with an empty shell of a wife,” says her husband, Jonathan (
making a point that’s already been amply established.
“Clemency” is graced with several fine performances. Mr. Pierce lends distinction to the production, within the limits of his part. (Jonathan is the male equivalent of the stereotypical neglected wife.) So does
a powerful presence in a fully developed role. He is
the next prisoner to be executed in Bernadine’s prison and a death-row occupant for 15 years, having been convicted of a murder that he may not have committed; the film preserves the ambiguity, while offering hints that he’s innocent and that his trial was fundamentally flawed.
Doubly isolated—his family has cut loose from him—Anthony clings to a wistful belief that the governor will grant him clemency at the last minute. Prison pictures of an earlier, more sentimental era kept audiences in suspense with the issue of whether a call from the governor’s office would come. There’s little or no suspense here, given the steady-state darkness of tone and the pervasive cynicism of our time; it’s a foregone conclusion that Anthony will die. His only remaining lifelines are to his devoted but weary attorney,
(affecting work by
and to Bernadine, who is simultaneously anguished by his plight and compelled, for personal as well as professional reasons, to keep her emotional distance.
The film keeps its own distance, partly out of necessity. Shot on an obviously limited budget, it looks and feels severely underpopulated. We’re told that Bernadine presides over a high-security correctional facility with 1,000 or so prisoners, but there’s none of the tumultuous energy associated with such a setting. Nor is there any sense of specific place. What state are we in—not figuratively but literally—where executions succeed one another at a rapid clip? No way to know from road signs, and the camera steers clear of vehicle license plates that might provide a clue. A different sort of distancing is imposed by the deliberate pace—spontaneity intrudes only intermittently—and by the off-putting tidiness of the structure. Everyone around Bernadine, from her deputy through the head of her execution team to the prison’s priest and Anthony’s lawyer, is moving on to another job, intends to retire or, in the case of her husband, wants to leave her.
All of which leaves the warden confronting her life, and Ms. Woodard carrying the movie, which she does by transforming understatement into eloquence. An empty shell Bernadine may be in her husband’s eyes, but for us she’s a desperately troubled soul. For much of its course Ms. Chukwu’s film seems oddly unbalanced. Why are we being asked to care so much about this woman’s welfare when a possibly innocent inmate is about to lose his life? The question is answered in a single, unwavering close-up of Bernadine’s face as she registers the horror of what is about to be done at her direction, almost as if by her hand. “Clemency” is a meditation on capital punishment from a singular perspective. Call it Dead Warden Walking.
Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8