Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is surrounded by death. In her time as the Warden of her all-male prison, she’s overseen the execution of twelve different human beings, the most recent of which went horribly awry. Williams maintains her composure on the outside to a steely degree, she’s convinced she’s got to. But on the inside, she’s shaken up, visions of that execution chamber float into her brain during the day and haunt her nightmares. The detached emotional state she uses to cope with her employment is starting to test her marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) and is going into overdrive with the impending execution of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a man who’s been on death row for 15 years for a crime he maintains he did not commit.
At one point in Clemency, Bernadine is having a barside conversation with Woods’ lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) where she notes how Marty wants to boil down the whole situation between her and Anthony “as good guys and bad guys”. However, she goes through great pains to explain how this whole scenario is far more nuanced than that. So too are the characters of Clemency similarly much more complex creations than you’d expect. Such complexity is tied into the chief theme of Clemency: escape. Of course a prisoner such as Anthony Woods would yearn for freedom, but it isn’t just people behind bars who seek escape from their current circumstances. is about to embark on retirement simply because he can’t stand the idea of watching another one of his clients perish in an execution chamber, a co-worker of Bernadine’s eventually finds himself yearning to take on a position as a warden at another prison while Jonathan is feeling drained from his teaching job.
Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu impressively renders not just these characters own psychological struggle but also gives this features protagonist her own unique and richly drawn struggle with her lot in life. Bernadine Williams is the one person in the cast who doesn’t even entertain the notion of escape even if that’s exactly what she wants deep down. She sticks by her job, defends it, wraps herself up in her work. When she isn’t doing that, she’s likely to be found at a local tavern downing drinks well into the night. Perhaps she does this so that she can be busy enough that even the thought of escaping this job isn’t something that can cross her mind. This makes the moments where she does open up and display vulnerability related to her job all the more substantial in their emotional impact.
I’m especially reminded of a conversation she has with the prison’s priest, Chaplain Kendricks (Michael O’Neill), where, after a whole conversation of just listening to Kendricks, she suddenly, in a soft but emotional tone, notes the exact number of executions she’s overseen. It slips out of her mouth, perhaps she only meant to think that statement. But now she’s made it clear, however quietly, that the amount of people she’s seen die is weighing on her. Just that brief piece of dialogue lends so much insight into the lead character of Clemency and is one of a number of examples of how Chukwu’s screenplay is able to explore the character of Bernadine Williams without compromising her crucially closed-off nature.
Chinonye Chukwu and cinematographer Eric Branco also film Clemency in an impeccable fashion that further illuminates Bernadine’s relationship with the people around her. This includes some thoughtfully chosen instances of using medium shot/reverse medium shots. Though a go-to method for filming dialogue exchanges in cinema, in Clemency, these shots are used sparingly to drive home how disconnected Bernadine is with other people when conversing with them. An early scene of Bernadine and Jonathan talking about how Bernadine no longer sleeps in the same bed as Jonathan sees the two characters occupying separate frames to signify how much distance there is between the two of them both physically and emotionally. Clemency is such a masterfully put-together production that even the conversations filmed in medium shot/reverse medium shots have significant underlying visual meaning!
Another memorable visual trait of Clemency emerges in a visual motif that sees characters, whether they’re in a prison cell or in a tavern, in the foreground surrounded by a more muted color palette while brighter colors linger off in the distant background. This visual serves as both a reminder and a taunt to the characters of Clemency of the far-off vibrant world they cannot escape to. This motif is most apparently seen in an unforgettable early sequence depicting Anthony Woods in his prison cell violently reacting to his impending execution. This scene isn’t just memorable because of its use of a visual motif, it’s also one of the numerous sequences in here that see Aldis Hodge delivering a phenomenal performance. Like Bernadine Williams, Hodge’s character is closed off from the world, Woods is a person who has decided to stop speaking and even eating as he prepares for his demise.
But we do get glimpses into a happier version of Woods in moments where the character is able to cling to a sense of escaping from this death sentence. It is here we get to see Woods as a human being with dreams, ambitions and more than a pinch of hope rather than just the future corpse the state government has already declared him to be. Aldis Hodge is utterly remarkable in lending believability to both the closed-off and more open parts of this character, a scene where he finally get the chance to talk to a former lover is especially gut-wrenching to watch just through Hodge’s facial expression alone. Hodge’s work as an actor is so good in Clemency that it’s a wonder he doesn’t deliver the best performance of the entire project.
That honor must go to Alfre Woodard in the lead role of Bernadine Williams. From her very first scene, you wanna go buy whoever cast Woodard in this role a whole bouquet of exquisite flowers, Woodard is perfectly cast in this role. It’s hard to imagine anyone else being able to lend such a convincing sense of authority as Williams oversees an execution gone awry without even showing a hint of being frazzled. From there, Woodard maintains the characters stoic composure so effortlessly that it takes your breath away whenever she shows brief glimpses into the vulnerable side of Bernadine Williams, the side of her that maybe does want to escape from this. Chinonye Chukwu’s script and Alfre Woodard’s performance work in beautiful harmony together to reflect this subtle interior battle Bernadine is grappling with. Clemency has countless phenomenal qualities but the way in which it explores the perspective of Bernadine Williams in such a detailed and engrossing manner is maybe its most impressive accomplishment.