Clemency begins with a worst-case scenario for Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard). As prison warden, Bernadine has presided over a dozen executions, but none have gone as poorly as her latest. After struggling to find a viable vein for the lethal injection, the execution table is covered in blood and poison, as the victim’s mother watches screaming. Bernadine has to pull the curtains from the viewing area and wait until the man on the table dies of shock. In its opening minutes, Clemency makes its view of the death penalty definite, showing that the blood mixing with that poison is coming from a beating heart and that no person deserves this type of treatment.
Bernadine sees these twelve men that she’s watched die as part of her job. As warden, it’s her duty to follow what the courts have decided to do with these individuals. But the weight of these souls bears down on her, whether she admits it or not. That’s especially the case of the latest death, as she spends more time drinking at a bar and drunkenly rehashing her decisions with her coworkers than with her husband (Wendell Pierce), who desperately wants to figure out how to save their marriage.
The thirteenth man waiting for his turn on the table is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a convicted killer whose lack of evidence tying him to the murder may save him from the needle. As Woods’ death looms and his hopes for escaping his fate grow larger, Bernadine starts dealing with nightmares of her past executions and struggling with balancing her troubling work with her failing marriage.
With a screenplay by writer/director Chinonye Chukwu, the characterizations of Bernadine and Anthony become Clemency’s biggest weakness. Chukwu makes Anthony’s innocence in the matter almost abundantly evident, as the entire area seems on the edge of their seat at to whether new evidence will salvage his life. Yet it’s never clear Bernadine’s shift comes from the idea that Anthony might be innocent, that she has seen what horrors lethal injection can be if administered wrong, or some combination of both. In a strange way, Chukwu’s screenplay almost makes it seem like Bernadine only finds faults in the system if things go wrong, and while it’s explicit that the deaths she’s watched occur have taken their toll, none of these past executions seem to have had as lasting an impression on her as the latest.
Clemency also never quite makes evident what it expects of Bernadine. Anthony’s lawyer (Richard Schiff) criticizes the actions that Bernadine must undergo as warden, and the parents of the man Anthony supposedly kill ask her to bend the rules for them at one point, as if Chukwu is showing that there’s no way for Bernadine to break her fortitude. Her husband offers an escape through retiring, which Bernadine inherently refuses, but it’s never apparent what action Chukwu’s script would like Bernadine to consider in order to escape this part of her job that is slowly tearing her apart.
Chukwu’s directing certainly knows how to best capture these performances, however, as her camera often forces the audience to sit with these characters and their emotions in the moment. Woodard plays Bernadine as troubled by what her job asks of her, yet only slightly showing any such emotion through her actions. When it comes to the executions, it’s almost as if Bernadine has tried to mentally distance herself, asking the man she’s executing at the beginning of the film blankly if he needs anything, moments before his death, or explaining Anthony’s last meal to him with a icy, matter-of-fact delivery that helps her ignore the consequences of what she’s asking.
While Woodard presents a cold, methodical malaise towards the procedure of the execution, it’s Hodge who must embody the quiet panic and crippling fear of knowing the exact moment his life will end. Hodge’s performance is the flashier of the two, but his emotion never feels false, as he tries to keep his composure until he can no longer bottle it up anymore. With both of these phenomenal performances, Chukwu showcases the horrific weight of taking someone’s life can have, and how hiding such emotion and succumbing to it are both excruciating.
The powerful performances in Clemency and Chukwu’s directing, which allows big emotions to run their course in a natural way, are undercut by a screenplay that knows it wants to criticize the death penalty, but doesn’t know quite how to do it without muddling the message and weakening the point.