Playing in the U.S. Dramatic competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 113 minutes. Next screenings: Thursday, Jan. 31, noon, Temple Theatre, Park City; Friday, Feb. 1., 6:30 p.m., Rose Wagner Center, Salt Lake City; Saturday, Feb. 2, 8:30 a.m., Egyptian Theatre, Park City.
Sensitive and hard-hitting, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s debut feature “Clemency” is a thoughtful examination of the death penalty in American prisons — seen from the viewpoint of the people who carry it out.
Alfre Woodard gives a gut-wrenching, fully lived-in performance as Bernadine Williams, the caring warden at an unnamed prison. (Chukwu deliberately avoids setting the movie in a particular state, so no one is off the hook.)
In the opening sequence, Bernadine is overseeing an execution by lethal injection. She makes sure the procedure is run by the numbers, and tends to the inmate’s mother, the guards who carry the inmate into the chamber, the chaplain (Michael O’Neill), and the paramedics. Even with all those checks, the execution goes awry, and the inmate (Alex Castillo) dies in agony. (The sequence seems to be inspired by a botched execution in Oklahoma a few years back.)
While an investigation looms on that execution, Bernadine must move on the next one: Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), convicted of his role in the shooting death of a police officer 15 years ago. Woods is largely uncommunicative, declining to request a last meal, declare a place he wants to be buried, or invite family members (his mother dies, off-camera and just before the movie starts). His attorney, Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), exhausts every option at appeals and requests for clemency, and tells Woods he’s retiring after this case — a sign that even he has given up hope.
Meanwhile, Bernadine struggles to keep her life from falling apart. She tends to drink a bit, after hours with the deputy warden (Michael Gunn). And her marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), a high-school English teacher, is on the rocks, in part because he’s suggesting rather strongly that maybe both of them should retire.
Chukwu, who spent four years researching Death Row issues to inform her script, focuses on the toll an impending execution takes on everyone involved — not just the condemned man, but also the lawyers, the survivors, the prison personnel, and their families. The somber tone set by Chukwu and cinematographer Eric Branco matches the seriousness of the story and the actors.
Woodard’s performance is flawless, creating tiny gestures to convey the bone-weary demeanor of someone trying to provide dignity in a situation that denies that privilege to all who are caught in it, Woodard’s face will burn in the memory long after the movie’s shattering conclusion.