Chinonye Chukwu’s Sundance breakout Clemency is poised to deliver Alfre Woodard back into awards consideration for the powerful moral journey for a warden questioning the practice. Alfre Woodard’s face journeys in Clemency will haunt me for days. The emptiness covered by a sheath of bureaucratic inhumanity tore every repressed bone from repressed ligament. Once she peels back any layer, exposes a wrist of emotional vulnerability and she dons elaborate gloves to not crumble under the weight of her cracked veneer. Her dinnertime reconciliation with her distant husband doesn’t let any omission come without every ounce of ache portrayed through the screen, but her final moments are next world intimate beauty, framed and directed with somber reverence for the barbaric acts she is acknowledging before her and haunting her career.
Woodard is not alone in excelling in the many tales of too much death at the whim of the state. Aldis Hodge as Anthony Woods, her upcoming executee, and Richard Schiff (The West Wing) as Marty, the lawyer defending him, have opposite sides of a battle where they can scream at the Almighty, but the hammer still lands. Hodge character is given a wide breadth of experience on his trip to the end, and though the writing transitions him from never-been family man to silent victim contemplating eternity with its plot’s whim, Hodge responds with invigorating vibrancy, the most active personae since Andre Holland in Moonlight. Schiff on the other hand drifts into an end of career crumble under the weight of all the lives lost at the bench; his cynicism never feels one note; sometimes there’s just so much you can take. Clemency establishes its limits, and Chukwu stretches all involved to their breaking points.
This is a message film, but that’s fine when the message is clear, impactful and done in service of its purpose. The pace could have been calibrated as the lines drifted without the urgency of its topic, and the characters can overwhelm with solemness; but the hollow, thudding pace will leave you drained and if you’re not already convinced the death penalty, like the rest of the American prison system, is deeply flawed from a humanist standpoint. You will leave the theater miserable. Plan for a beer or three after.