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We’ve all seen prison dramas – the tough lives of inmates in a heartless system patrolled by brutes, policed by sadists and presided over by a martinet. Clemency isn’t that sort of film. Nor is it film-as-entertainment, be warned, but a grim and sobering look at US prison life from an unusual angle, the warden’s.

Opening up with a pre-credits scene that follows an execution on death row, which ends up being a botched, messy and gruelling one, for the man who’s being killed, the people watching and the warden supervising the whole thing, the film proper then concerns itself with the preparations for the execution of another man, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) again supervised by the same warden, who’s seen too much of this sort of thing.

Bernardine Williams is a woman just doing her job, running a well ordered and humane prison efficiently and with as much kindness as she can show without compromising herself, which is to say not very much. Other representatives of “the establishment” include the condemned man’s sad-eyed lawyer (Richard Schiff), who’s decided that this will be his last execution, the similarly strung-out chaplain (Michael O’Neill), the warden’s careworn but attentive deputy (Richard Gunn) and a seen-too-much officer (LaMonica Garrett) whose exposure to state-sanctioned execution also takes its toll.

These people are not beasts, they’re decent human beings doing a tough job. Nor have they developed tough carapaces to protect them from what they’ve seeen. Rather, the exposure to automated death has made them fragile, liable to snap at any moment. They’re the walking wounded. It’s far from the usual take.

Alfre Woodard, a boss of the ambiguous gesture – is she waving or drowning? – is the star of this unusually angled drama conducted in the quietest of tones and often in semi-darkness. The bar where the warden drinks-to-forget after work is a pit of gloom. The lights are never on at home, where her husband (Wendell Pierce) questions their continuing life together. There is not one single glint of sunshine in the 112 minutes of running time. Nor any laughs. If there is any of the gallows humour you might expect in people doing this sort of work, it’s not on this screen.

Aldis Hodge as Anthony Woods
Aldis Hodge as Death Row inmate Anthony Woods

A slo-mo tale of the death of the warden’s soul is what we’re watching, but also the death of the body of an inmate. The film isn’t initially about death row inmate Anthony Woods, though as it progresses he edges more into view, and Aldis Hodge becomes more impressive the more he’s asked to do. Even so, writer/director Chinonye Chukwu holds off going too far into questions of Woods’s guilt or innocence. That’s not what Clemency is about.

An exercise in mood control packed with actors who know that holding back can be dramatic in its own way, as in the little scene where Bernardine talks Anthony through “the procedure” – how he’ll be walked to the execution chamber, strapped to a gurney and will then be injected with three separate drugs. She is matter of fact, stone-faced. He says nothing but his head vibrates slowly as if in shock. It’s a carefully and brilliantly under-written scene that’s also played as such.

Outside, meanwhile, protestors chant against the death sentence, overt displays of emotion coming only from people who are essentially impotent.

It’s no Shawshank Redemption, Escape from Alcatraz, or Papillon. There are no jokes about dropping the soap in the shower, no escape plans, no light relief. It is grim and this relentlessness of mood is what makes it so compelling. Catharsis is what films like this are supposed to deliver. I must have missed that bit.

Clemency – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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