Clemency is all about control, or the lack of it. For prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) its about controlling the variables in a world full of people looking to upset the status quo. For death row inmate Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) its about regaining some of the control that has been stripped from him by an institution that more often than not boils you down to a number. Your prison ID number, the number of days left until they inject poison into your veins, the number of people who can watch from the gallery as it happens. Clemency is about control, cold calculated control. That is why it is so utterly staggering that it houses two of the best performances of the year in Woodard and Hodge, two people failing so completely to hold themselves together, Bernadine after years putting men to death, never asking if they deserved it and Anthony saying goodbye to the last remnants of a hope that might just be the real killer here. Woodard in particular breaks herself into compartments, little things that hurt her surrounding her on all sides, infecting every fibre of a performance that deserves serious recognition come Oscar season.
The film that houses these performances however, one that chronicles the buildup to Woods’ execution and the various attempts to halt it is a little disjointed, unsure of where it wants to deliver its hits. Moments when Bernadine fails to connect with her husband (an underutilized Wendell Pierce) at home give an idea of the power her status as executioner has had on her soul, hollowing her out as she recounts the number of people she has put to death and pretended like it was just ‘part of the job’ but it narrows the focus of a film that tries but struggles to tell a tale about the socially ostracising power of trauma. There is an irony here in that director and writer Chinonye Chukwu has crafted a clean, almost sanitised look at the logistical challenges of prison life, the inhuman bureaucracy that lies behind the curtain, one of utmost control but in its various subplots and where it story heads, it feels messy, lost in the big beats, always looking at the little things. It speaks to Bernadine’s mindset, focused on the minutiae, not looking at what’s killing her too but never connects you to her struggle in the way it should. While its ending provides a powerhouse performance in Woodard and real dramatic heft, the story at the heart of Clemency feels a little lost in the system.