Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu, US) — Gala Presentations

By Meg Shields

Clemency was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance festival, and maybe it’s time we accept that the altitude is having some pernicious effect on Utah audiences. The film follows Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a beleaguered Death Row warden who takes her job very seriously, but is starting to feel the toll of presiding over executions. All of the film’s lead performances, including Woodard and Aldis Hodge as convict Anthony Woods, are well-turned, but vexingly one note: Bernadine in particular has no real arc as a protagonist, beginning and ending the film with the same stakes, the same doubts, and the same convictions. Clemency repeatedly tells its audience what its opening execution scene shows so masterfully; it is a breathtaking and nuanced sequence, and it is a shame that the rest of the film is devoid of the same subtlety. Instead, we are incessantly presented with the same moral conundrum (if we can call it that): that the systematic killing of people is not only wrong, but malignant. Ultimately, the film fails to support its hand-wringing with any form of of emotional engagement, effectively turning a just cause into an exercise in tedium. When the most interesting scenes in a film criticizing the death penalty are the executions, that isn’t just sloppy, that’s a moral failing.

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