Nearly all of the action is interior in Clemency, Nigeria-born director Chinonye Chokwu’s gripping second feature. Besides the two scenes of placard-carrying protesters heckling visitors to the prison where death-row prisoner, Anthony Woods, awaits execution, one other outdoors scene in the 119-minute psychological thriller is dark, short, and full of pathos. Bernardine Williams (Alfre Woodard), the warden of the prison that forms the focus of the action is at the parking lot of a bar, insisting to her deputy Tom (Richard Gunn) that she can drive herself home, although she is drunk. The tension is so high at this point that one expects a twist, but the drama lies elsewhere.
In the stoically tough, unlovable inner life of Williams who is determined to do her job, like anyone holding the fort at the tail-end of the criminal justice system. In her home, equally dark and loveless, despite her husband Jonathan’s (Wendell Pierce) best efforts. It lies in her nightmares, where the sheriff’s uniform appears on a convict and she is strapped to the chair. It lies, finally, in the execution room, where all life ends.
The first action is a botched execution. Another comes in just a few days. The convict Woods (Aldis Hodge) expects clemency, and it emerges that he has a son born only after his imprisonment. His attorney, Marty Lunetta, is similarly positive. The appeal is lost, however, and once Williams gives the nod to the paramedic, all her senses break down to silent, involuting tears. The camera stays fixated on her face for the duration of the action, until the chaplain urges her to record the time of the execution.
As the warden waddles out the prison, the indescribably searing music tracks her, as if in accusation. Chukwu does an exceptional job of making this story all about emotion without any treacly suggestions. Every touch is light but deeply felt. A moment of brightness is when Woods is let into a closed basketball court and aimlessly walks around the perimeter. It’s all in the lighting. Out of heightened awareness, one wondered if the film would make itself an advocate against capital punishment.
The optimism could be more justified than Woods’.