Face the Nation
By Michael Koresky

Dir. Chinonye Chukwu, U.S., Neon

On more than one occasion in Clemency, a character avoids or recoils from another’s touch: Bernadine, the middle-aged death-row warden played by Alfre Woodard, from her husband; the convicted inmate Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) from the once tireless lawyer working for his client’s reprieve. It’s never spoken of, but it makes agonizing sense—in a world, in a country, in a state, in an institution that allows for the official sanctioning of the taking of human life, how is even basic connection possible? Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency employs an appropriately clinical approach to its subject matter and its characters, allowing the emotional distance between those onscreen, and, crucially between viewers and its main character, to speak to the impersonal governmental mechanism that makes such retaliatory killing possible.

Chukwu’s film fully equates the personal and the political, because when examining capital punishment there can be no separation between the two. Though the looming deadline of Anthony’s execution and the ambiguous, unresolved question of his guilt provide its basic fuel, Clemency is focused mostly, and most compellingly, on Bernadine, as she quietly implodes. She has been working this job for decades, and Woodard never lets the viewer forget that it has indeed been a job: she seems to embody all of those years in each step, each grimace, even in her very occasional forced smile. There is no moment when Bernadine comes to a clearly expressed epiphanic realization or explodes with some newly discovered insight into the existential meaning of her role; instead Chukwu observes her at a possible turning point, witnessing the cumulative physical and emotional effect her career has had on her body and spirit.

Inspired by the heavily protested 2011 Georgia State Prison execution of Troy Davis, accused of killing a police officer, Chukwu wrote Clemency not only as a portrait of potential criminal injustice—like Hodge’s Anthony, Troy is believed by many to be innocent of the crime—but as a character study of a state-appointed official responsible for carrying out killings, regardless of the victim’s guilt or innocence. The film unerringly focuses on Woodard’s Bernadine, who is the subject of many intent, stare-down camera close-ups, from beginning to end. The intensity of this feels not like visual mannerism but meaningful interrogation, as though, through some form of cinematic endurance, the film is trying to understand something that may remain unknowable.

Woodard responds to the camera’s gaze with a performance of generous intractability. It’s the kind of acting that will get praised for its internalization—as if that’s not what all actors do—but Woodard is balancing something particularly delicate here, a scene-to-scene negotiation of withholding and emotional transparency likely achievable only by an actor who has been plying her craft for decades. Woodard has always been a brilliantly cagey, unpredictable performer; in films such as Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta, John Sayles’s Passion Fish, and even her lived-in Bob Cratchit variation in Scrooged, she subtly modulates among registers—complete self-containment one minute, ingratiating emotional clarity the next—in a way that makes meaningless discussions about character “likability” feel particularly moot. Woodard’s relationship to the camera is one of mutual trust—both she and whoever’s in charge of the apparatus appear to know that her silent stares and secret smiles will convey lifetimes of experience, and rarely will she push a point to make one feel it. For all its considerable craft and unflinching dramatic heft, Clemency is most remarkable for putting Woodard’s gifts so consistently center frame; it’s a film whose political meaning is connected inextricably to its main actor’s presence.

Woodard is first seen staring down the gurney to which an inmate—Victor Jimenez, played by Alex Castillo—will soon be strapped and given a lethal injection. The medical staff, however, cannot initially locate a vein, leading to a botched job that’s excruciating to behold. Bernadine, despite her visible frustration about the outcome of the execution, stands imperturbable in the void of the death chamber, trying give an air of impassive observance as she listens to Victor make his final statement to his death’s witnesses into a microphone. Bernadine keeps up appearances, but even the way Woodard moves around and shifts in her dark suit speaks to something ill-fitting about her role. And there’s something more—a sudden inability to hear, or perhaps an unwillingness to respond to others. When others in the room refer to her as “Warden,” she shows no indication that she has heard them; when she’s called by her name, however, she snaps to attention—an implicit reclamation of the human over the machine.

In a succession of scenes, we come to realize the growing tension in her relationship with husband Jonathan—embodied with fatigued joviality by Wendell Pierce—who wants her to retire. Bernadine, perhaps unable to measure herself outside of her professional identity, sees Jonathan’s request as a form of control. As her home life becomes marked by untenable distances, she finds herself more often on the couch watching TV into the wee hours of the morning rather than sleeping in bed, and in the local dive bar after working hours. (Incidentally, Woodard offers up a remarkably convincing drunk scene; she’s not merely trying to stumble back to her car after getting too much in her cups, she’s constantly adjusting to an altered mind and body.) Even when surrounded by coworkers at the prison, Bernadine seems isolated, her role within the system’s hierarchy a position of earthly power, but perhaps one of subordination to some higher authority. “I’m alone, and nobody can fix it,” she says to Jonathan in one of the film’s few moments of direct emotional address, though the agony of her plea, and the inherent impossibility it communicates, marks it as a moment of cutting off rather than opening up.

There are no small triumphs in Clemency, just different gradations of hopelessness—one of the reasons the film faces an uphill battle to connect with audiences, and also one way that it resonates as the rare Sundance-anointed drama that feels uncompromised. Anthony has already lost his appeal when the film begins; the glimmer of hope that his execution will be commuted feels futile. The film offers a meaningful lack of closure, and it can be felt everywhere, from DP Eric Branco widescreen emphasis of the emptiness of even populated rooms; to Richard Schiff’s expertly worn-out defense lawyer Marty, who plans to retire after Anthony’s execution, himself a hollowed shell; to, most remarkably, Hodge’s wrenching performance as Anthony, who on top of his own looming death must contend with the death of his mother and disconcerting revelations about his former girlfriend (Danielle Brooks, who brings a young lifetime of pain and regret to bear in her one scene) and the child they had together.

With its air of weariness and melancholy, its shadowy interiors and images of doleful professionals going through their motions, Clemency is a sepulchral film, but Chukwu never allows for an air of distanced or rehearsed affectation. Woodard’s final extended close-up is arresting not because of the audacity of the cinematic gesture—it’s an unusual moment in which an American filmmaker invites us to fully examine an actor, and consider all that we can and cannot see. The simultaneous expressiveness and defiant unreadability of Woodard’s face in this film, and in these last moments in particular, speak both to the exhilaration of great acting and to the essential limitations of what an actor can inherently communicate about a topic so monumental, monstrous, and irreconcilable.