Alfre Woodard is outstanding in “Clemency.” (Photo: neon)
There is simply no other word to say it: Alfre Woodard is magnificent as a woman whose limits are put to the test, and something else, in “Clemency.”
Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a prison guard, in the exciting drama of writer and director Chinonye Chukwu. “Grab” is the right word too. Although while watching, it may take a while to get there: Woodard’s film and performance burn slowly but intensely. It is a pleasure to see it.
OK, wait, “pleasure” could actually be the wrong word. It is hard to go sometimes. The film begins with the cold Bernadine preparing for an execution, on the 12th they supervise her. She is engaged in all business while preparing, so concentrated that she doesn’t realize when a guard calls her a couple of times, at least until she calls her “Bernadine.”
The execution goes spectacularly badly, a tortuous exercise in human misery. Bernadine handles it as she handles everything, calmly, without emotion.
But trips to the bar after work, and difficulties with any type of intimacy with her patient, and clearly suffering, husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce, also outstanding), suggest that more than she reveals to the world may be happening.
How could I not be?
Chukwu uses another prisoner in death row, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge, and this is a good place to say that all acting is excellent), as the vehicle to show us Bernadine’s struggles.
Anthony is appealing his sentence, but Bernadine does not sweeten his prospects. There is a dazzling scene in which she discusses the details of her imminent death with him, what drugs that will take her life will do what, if she wanted witnesses, how she would like them to get rid of the body. While sitting, stunned. It’s something powerful, done even more by Hodge just sitting and staring in disbelief.
Equally devastating is the visit of Anthony’s girlfriend (Danielle Brooks).
Anthony’s lawyer, Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff, the image of ruined and annoying frustration), has also worked in many of these cases to be optimistic. He will fight for Anthony, certainly. But you can tell by his posture, his look, his tone, that this is a block he has been to many, many times, and he knows where the road leads. He wants something good to happen to Anthony, even though we know little about his past.
This is not a film about guilt and innocence, at least not in the traditional way.
We don’t know if Anthony committed a murder. That is not the problem here. The problem is its current reality, and what, if something, can be done to change it, if something must be done.
However, ultimately, it is Bernadine’s journey and Woodard’s film. It is a remarkable and open performance, which reveals a lot about the character, but slowly, sometimes almost imperceptibly. He communicates a lot with so little: a sigh, a look, a turn of his head. A tear can be devastating.
Should be. Woodard and Chukwu are getting the value of one life, of many lives, and the cost that one can have for so many people. “Clemency” is not exactly a good time in the cinema, but it is definitely enlightening.
‘Clemency’, 4 stars
Director: Chinonye Chukwu.
Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce.
Classification: R for some disturbing material and language.
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