Saturday 10 February 2024

Movie Review: Clemency (2019)

Genre: Drama  
Director: Chinonye Chukwu  
Starring: Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge  
Running Time: 113 minutes  

Synopsis: Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is the long-serving warden at a US prison where capital punishments take place. The botched execution of prisoner Jimenez adds to Bernadine's mounting mental strain. She is unable to sleep, and her relationship with husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) deteriorates. The stoic Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) is the next prisoner scheduled to die. He maintains his innocence, and his lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff) does all he can to secure a stay of execution. Anthony refuses to communicate with Bernadine, who is studiously determined to follow the rules of her profession.

What Works Well: The stark aesthetic of bland greys, browns, and greens complements the theme of institutionalized death-in-waiting taking a toll on the human psyche. Alfre Woodard excels in conveying the slow descent towards mental atrophy, in a milieu where all the characters - inmates, lawyers, family members, guards - are either physically or emotionally on the brink, whether they know it or not.

What Does Not Work As Well: Director and writer Chinonye Chukwu starts and finishes the drama in essentially the same emotional space, resulting in a slog. Bernadine's mounting trauma is made clear early, and her trajectory, similar to that of the other characters, barely evolves. The mostly bottled-up persona of death row inmate Anthony Woods adds to the stillness. Devoid of narrative progression, the running time is filled with silence, minutiae, repetition, and empty stares into the distance. 

Conclusion: Remains confined in the same small cell for too long.

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