It’s a shame that “Clemency” is coming to theaters around the same time as “Just Mercy,” another brooding death-row drama. It’s a disservice to both movies but especially to “Clemency,” which is more fictional and less formulaic than the other (quite worthy) film. It’s particularly unfair to Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge, who give two of the most powerful performances of 2019, in a movie that has been ignominiously shuffled off to 2020. (Distributor Neon may have decided to put all its awards season eggs in the “Parasite” basket.)
Woodard plays a prison warden, Bernadine Williams; Hodge (“Hidden Figures”) plays a condemned prisoner, Anthony Woods; the two spend the movie locked in a pre-ordained dance of death from which they’re powerless to break. The warden has made her reputation as a cool-to-cold stickler for procedure, but in the opening scenes of “Clemency,” she and we watch the execution by lethal injection of a prisoner (Alex Castillo) go horribly wrong, and it rattles her down to the foundations. The movie is told in a clean, spare, meticulous style, the better to watch whatever’s holding Williams together begin to give way.
After work, she regularly goes to a bar and drinks, dissatisfactions leaking out with each fresh whiskey. Then she goes home to a schoolteacher husband (Wendell Pierce) who’s trying to figure out when his wife became an unreachable shell of a person. To do her job, the warden knows she can’t really be a person. She’s an instrument of the system, and instruments don’t have feelings. Even when they do.
The writer-director is Chinonye Chukwu, a Nigerian-American filmmaker whose second feature this is. (It won the Grand Jury prize for drama at Sundance 2019, making Chukwu the first black woman to win the award.) She exerts a remarkable hold on the material, arguably too much so: “Clemency” observes its characters with a steady, unmodulated pace and a minimum of frills. (The precisely framed cinematography is by Eric Branco; the discreet, mournful score by Kathryn Bostic.)
It’s a heavy movie, as befits its subject. Chukwu isn’t making a case against the death penalty; that’s a given. She wants to make you feel, truly feel, what it is to put a man to death. The fact that warden Williams is an African-American woman in a penal system that primarily incarcerates black men isn’t commented upon and doesn’t need to be. It’s just one more irreconcilable force of pressure.
Outside the prison are anti-death-penalty protesters and the parents of the policeman Woods may have killed; inside the walls is a system under ruinous stress. Everyone’s human here, including the stoic guard (LaMonica Garrett) who’s seen one execution too many; the deputy warden (Richard Gunn) who straps himself onto the execution table to understand how it feels; the prison chaplain (Michael O’Neill) and the Legal Aid lawyer (the wonderful Richard Schiff, breathing moral exhaustion from his pores), who both have hit the wall and are retiring.
But it’s the interplay between the warden and the prisoner that’s at the heart of “Clemency,” one the face of a faceless system, the other trying desperately to hold on to his individuality before that system annuls him. Hodge is mesmerizing, no more so than in the scene in which the warden runs him through the protocol — the insensate rules — leading up to his execution and you see the certainty of death at last close around the prisoner, leaving him gasping for air.
The movie charts Woods’s slow recovery of his own dignity as a person. At the same time, it wonders what dignity even means for someone like the warden. Is it following the book no matter what it says or where it leads? Is that how a society functions? Or is there more dignity, more life, to be found in pity — for oneself, for the people you can’t save, for a system you might change? The title of “Clemency” refers to the mercy extended to a prisoner, but it’s the wisdom of this grave and sorrowful drama to spread the meaning to everyone in its view.
Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu. Starring Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge. At Kendall Square. 113 minutes. R (disturbing material, language)