REVIEW: ‘Clemency’ (2019) is a Quiet, Devastating Study on the People Involved with Death Row

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Chukwu has crafted a film in which you can’t tear your eyes away from the screen”

There have been some memorable prison dramas over the decades, from The Shawshank Redemption to A Prophet, but they all tend to become melodramatic pieces exploring themes of hope or violence. Clemency, directed by Chinonye Chukwu, is a very different kind of prison drama: one that avoids exaggerated clichés and instead opts for an intense, realistic look into death row executions. Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is a prison warden who has been carrying out death row executions over many years and we see the toll that has on her as she prepares for the next one.

In Clemency, Chukwu trusts the cast to carry the story, and as a result, showcases exemplary performances from every cast member. Woodard especially gives a career-best performance and is given the opportunity to sink her teeth into the role. From the very first frame we feel the weight the warden carries from her eyes alone, and throughout the whole film, Woodard gives us so much information from the subtlest of movements. The sparse sound design and muted camera movements gives Woodard the space and time to let us in on the character and tell us exactly how she is thinking and feeling. Praise must go to the rest of the cast for their performances, including Aldis Hodge, who gives such a heart-wrenching performance as death row inmate Anthony Woods; who is the next to be executed for a crime he claims to be innocent of and is desperate for clemency. A scene in which Bernadine goes through the details of the execution with Anthony is forever seared into my mind: he is wide-eyed, trembling, trying to comprehend that he is sentenced to die.

As understated as they are, the visuals and audio are fantastic too. Eric Branco’s cinematography is simple but deliberate and captures the mindset of whoever is present within the frame. Bernadine is often framed behind bars to enforce how trapped she feels; the camera spins round inside an outdoor cage with Anthony prowling around the perimeter like an animal. The sound designers have also done a tremendous job of adding to the inescapable dread: the constant noise of the protesters outside of Bernadine’s office, each excruciating second of the clock ticking by in the execution chamber. Clemency may be a performance piece, but the technical work helps elevate the story.

A woman sat on a bench in an empty room. Screenshot from 'Clemency'
Image courtesy of ACE Pictures

The thing that is instantly noticeable with the story on screen is just how tired the cast of characters are. The warden who has to carry out the executions, the lawyer who has to watch another one of their clients die, the inmate who desperately clings onto hope whilst staring into the face of death. From the bags under their eyes and their sluggish movements to their boozy escapes to the local bar; we feel exactly how draining it is for these characters. The film doesn’t go into detail so much on why Bernadine works in her profession, but Clemency does an excellent job of showing us her current mindset. There is also an interesting exploration of human connection: Bernadine forcibly pushes away a caring hand from her husband, but Anthony reaches out for a hand to hold in most of his scenes. This juxtaposition on human connection is just one of the many layers that Chukwu creates to make up an engrossing, devastating watch.

Clemency can be a difficult watch but Chukwu has crafted a film in which you can’t tear your eyes away from the screen, no matter how uncomfortable it becomes. There is a sense of a higher meaning where it feels like a disservice to the film if you looked away from the screen: this story is inspired by real events and Chukwu wants you to take a good look into what it is really like in death row. Last year at Sundance, Clemency took the Grand Jury prize and it is easy to see why. Even long after the credits roll, there will be moments etched into your mind forever and that is thanks to Chukwu’s direction, the technical work from the crew and the incredible performances from the cast.  

Written/Directed by: Chinonye Chukwu

Produced by: Bronwyn Cornelius, Julian Cautherley, Peter Wong, Timur Bekbosunov

Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brooks

Release Date: 17th July 2020

Available on: Curzon Home Cinema