SAVFF REVIEW — “Clemency”
I don’t have anything funny to say about this.
Clemency is written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu and stars Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Richard Gunn, Wendell Pierce, and Aldis Hodge. It tells the story of Bernadine Williams, a Death Row prison warden whose job has taken a psychological toll on her, must confront her demons when she has to execute another inmate. This made waves back at the Sundance Film Festival and took home the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize so I was very excited to catch it at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival. With all the hype behind this, I must say I’m a bit surprised. Clemency is a fine drama with some solid performances but lacks any real depth to generate any real or lasting emotions.
Chinonye Chukwu is directing here and she shows great promise, but doesn’t really cross the finish line. Chukwu will often present intriguing ideas and compelling themes, but she doesn’t really go anywhere or say anything with them. There isn’t anything discussed or presented in Clemency that you couldn’t gather from seeing the trailer or just hearing the plot. It presents itself as this deep and dark drama, but there’s little to nothing to chew on here. It takes a clear stance on the death penalty, but it doesn’t say much of anything else. No character goes through an arc that you couldn’t guess and much of the film feels very neutered. Chukwu is able to deliver some compelling scenes, in particular, the opening execution is very well done, but these sequences are few and far between. What’s in between isn’t necessarily bad, it just kinda feels like filler.
Regardless of the lukewarm quality of the narrative, Aldis Hodge gives a fantastic performance. He is electric in every single scene he is in. He really ends up being the heart of the film and deserves all the recognition in the world for this performance. I hope to see more of him because he really knocks it out of the park here. Alfre Woodard does a fine job here, although I don’t think this is the knockout performance the film seems to think it is. She does a good job with the material she’s given and Chukwu is able to get some great moments out of her, but her character is fairly underwritten. The film really centers on this character’s inner moral struggle, but the film does little to nothing to develop it. She’s a conflicted character and that’s it. We never really explore why she’s conflicted or what she even really thinks about the situations presented in the film. There’s also a really cheesy marriage subplot and Woodard struggles to make a few comedic scenes work. She does a fine job here, but Aldis really shines.
On a technical level, Clemency is fine. The score is fairly standard and largely forgettable, but Chukwu does have a clear visual style here. The cinematography is rarely showy but very effectively done. Whenever the film gets dark or hard to watch, the camera often holds on the reactions to these events rather than the events themselves. We see the faces of these victims, rather than the events affecting them. Much of Clemency lives in the faces of these performers. In short, Clemency showcases great potential from everyone involved in it, but rarely ever reaches that potential. 2/5