A couple of nights ago I finally saw Chinonye Chukwu‘s Clemency. There’s a lot of support for Alfre Woodard‘s performance as a death row prison warden coping with guilt. Her acting is effective on its own terms, but I found myself disengaging almost immediately from the script, and to some extent from the direction.
In the very first scene Woodard’s Bernadine Williams, who presumably was hired because she didn’t seem like the excessively emotional type, is seized by emotion as she stares at an execution gurney. A youngish prison guard emerges from a nearby room and says “Warden?” No answer. “Warden?” Ditto. “Bernardine?” he says, and then finally Woodard acknowledges the guy.
Right away I was muttering “bullshit.” No way does a chief administrator of a prison ignore a colleague, or become so lost in thought that she doesn’t hear a question. Cheap theatrical device.
The first execution scene (intravenous) begins a few minutes later. A Latino male is strapped down and sweating his last few minutes of life. The dosing begins with some uniformed dude overseeing the injection of lethal drugs. A couple of guards stand at the ready. Oddly, Woodard’s warden is also in the room, standing right behind the doomed convict and staring at him intently, like a distraught wife or a mother would.
I’ve seen several execution scenes in my life, and I’ve never seen a single one in which a warden hovers over the condemned like a nurse. And I didn’t buy it. It irritated me, actually.
So I’m only a few minutes into Clemency and I’ve already had two dropout moments. I was thisclose to turning it off, but I stayed with it. But I never really “came back in,” so to speak. It’s an okay film in some respects. It’s not awful. I was affected — diverted — by Richard Schiff‘s performance as a bitter bleeding-heart attorney. Clemency will be released on 12.27.19.