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Film Review: “Clemency” Falls Short of Absolution

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed

Film poster: “Clemency”

Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu, 2019) 2 out of 4 stars.

Despite strong central performances from lead actress Alfre Woodard (Knucklehead), as a benumbed prison warden on the verge of an emotional breakdown, and Aldis Hodge (Brian Banks), as a death-row inmate, director Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency never quite comes together in dramatic terms, no matter how moving individual scenes may be. Its anti-death-penalty message is laudable, and there are effective moments within, but too often the expositional dialogue states the filmmaker’s intentions in exact terms, detracting from the movie’s finer qualities. Worse, Woodard’s warden remains a cypher, her final catharsis emerging from a place both obvious and obscure. Though Clemency demands mercy, it doesn’t quite merit its grace.

Woodard’s warden, Bernadine Williams, presides over her prison with an officious hand. Nothing detracts from her mission to run a tight ship and have everything go according to schedule. When, right at the story’s start, in a brutally clinical scene, the official executioner is unable to find a good vein for that day’s inmate’s rendezvous with destiny, there are consequences. Beyond the official reckoning, however, it’s Bernadine’s mental state that is most under threat. Or so it appears. Interestingly, she responds less to her title than to her first name, as if her submerged humanity cries out for recognition. Still, back home, her husband (Wendell Pierce, Burning Cane), would love to see some of that buried compassion, only it remains hidden, deadened by his wife’s steady drinking.

Meanwhile, Hodge’s Anthony Woods, who maintains his innocence years after being put away for killing a cop in a botched robbery (he claims it was his partner who pulled the trigger), struggles to accept his coming fate. His life, in his mind, is but an exercise in futility. Until, that is, he discovers that he has a son, at which point he suddenly develops hope. There’s nothing wrong with a little faith in the future, unless you have none. Unfortunately, Woods’ lawyer (Richard Schiff, Alien Code), though clearly an idealistic and caring soul, is also a grotesque incompetent, at least based on the evidence here. He sighs and he frowns, shrugging his shoulders at the injustice of the world. If I might be so bold, I suggest he take a look at the career of Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (who gets his own, better film in a few weeks, with Just Mercy). Now there’s a lawyer who does more than just proclaim his impotence. Poor Woods doesn’t stand a chance at getting the titular clemency.

Alex Castillo and Alfre Woodard appear in CLEMENCY by Chinonye Chokwu, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Eric Branco

And so it goes in this grim, dispiriting tale of our collective inability to make a difference against the system. There is no doubt truth in that wailing lament, but passivity in the face of injustice is, after a while, unbearable to watch. Woodard and Hodge do their best, however, and the scenes that feature them together have real power. It’s too bad Chukwu (alaskaLand) flubs her ending, though, wasting a prolonged final closeup on Woodard and an eventual tear by continuing the take until an unnecessary outburst. We get it: she’s broken, and now can heal. As in so much of the film, we’re told what we know and not told what we need. This Clemency, affecting as it can be in places, falls short of absolution.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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