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'Clemency' review: Intensely focused prison drama

Alfre Woodard stars in "Clemency," in theaters on

Alfre Woodard stars in "Clemency," in theaters on Dec. 27, 2019. Credit: NEON

PLOT After a botched execution, a prison warden questions her commitment to the death penalty.

CAST Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce

RATED R (death and adult themes)

LENGTH 1:52

PLAYING AT Opens Dec. 27 at Angelika Film Center in Manhattan; opens locally in January.

BOTTOM LINE An intensely focused character study, driven by a bone-deep performance from Woodard.

Talk about a tough sell: "Clemency," which explores the morality of the death penalty, arrives just after Christmas as families flock to theaters for crowd-pleasing comedies, action flicks and period pieces. This movie is clearly none of those. But if you have the fortitude for a clear-eyed, challenging drama driven by two powerful performances, you'll find "Clemency" a rewarding experience.

Its story is built around two figures at opposite ends of a death sentence. One is Bernadine Williams, a prison warden facing her twelfth execution. Played by a raw and riveting Alfre Woodard, Bernadine is a steel-spined professional who appears to be unraveling. The botched execution of Victor Jimenez — staged in an excruciating opening scene — is haunting her. Plagued by nightmares and fearful of intimacy with her husband, Jonathan (a deeply empathetic Wendell Pierce), Bernadine finds solace in easy, boozy banter with colleagues at the local bar.

Her next execution —barring a reprieve from the governor's office — will be Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge, "Brian Banks"). Woods may be mentally impaired; he also seems to be going crazy. Banging his head on a wall in an effort to kill himself ("I say when I die," he screams) and grasping at the thinnest straws of hope, Woods is a man trapped in a nightmare. Hodge plays him with a wrenching combination of dignity and desperation.  

Bernadine isn't sure she can kill this man. Woods' lawyer, Marty (a brief but moving Richard Schiff), hounds her like a guilty conscience, while the parents of Woods' alleged victim symbolize her legal duty. Protesters gather outside her walls, stirring emotions she'd rather not have. As film's clock ticks down, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu puts us in the shoes of both prisoner and executioner.

Chukwu, a Nigeria-born, Alaska-raised filmmaker with a background in prison activism, slightly skews her case. Her film suggests, but never proves, that both Jimenez and Woods are innocent. That feels a little too easy. Chukwu might have put her audience to an even tougher test by establishing the prisoners' guilt.

"Clemency" ends with Bernadine drawing a very deep breath — the kind you take after you've been through something difficult or traumatic. You'll know just how she feels. 

FOUR MORE

Movies that treat capital punishment as a serious issue often get attention from Oscar; those that toy with it do so at their peril. Here are four examples:

I WANT TO LIVE! (1958) This fact-based story about Barbara Graham, a rare woman sentenced to death for her part in a robbery. Susan Hayward, in the lead role, earned as Oscar for her performance.

DEAD MAN WALKING (1995) Tim Robbins directed this drama about the relationship between the real-life nun Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) and death-row inmate Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn, playing a fictionalized character). Sarandon won an Oscar; Robbins and Penn both earned nominations.

THE GREEN MILE (1999) Frank Darabont's adaption of the Stephen King novel, about a death-row guard (Tom Hanks) and an inmate with supernatural powers (Michael Clarke Duncan) has become a modern classic since its release; it earned four Oscar nods, including for Best Picture.

THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE (2003) Kevin Spacey plays the title role, an anti-death-penalty activist who is put on trial for killing a fellow protester, in this legal thriller. The overly convoluted story, by Charles Randolph ("The Big Short"), drew eye-rolls and laughter from critics; Roger Ebert gave it a rare zero-star review.—RAFER GUZMAN

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