Woodard gives one of the year’s great performances in ‘Clemency’

Alfre Woodard in ‘Clemency’. (ACE Pictures Entertainment)

Alfre Woodard in ‘Clemency’. (ACE Pictures Entertainment)

In “Clemency,” Chinonye Chukwu’s gripping new movie, Alfre Woodard plays a death-row prison warden so deeply absorbed in her work that she often appears to be lost in thought. Her job requires both concentration and composure, an ability to maintain stillness and authority in the face of grim everyday realities. More than once a colleague will gently nudge her (“Warden … Warden”) and receive no response. Only when the warden hears her name (“Bernadine!”) will she snap out of her trance, as though suddenly reminded that she is, in fact, a human being and not just a cog in the grinding machinery of death.

The humanity of the condemned —those who await death behind bars and those who are there to guide them through it —is of crucial importance to this spare, somber drama, which won the grand jury prize for U.S. narrative films at Sundance this year. Festival awards have never been a guarantee of quality, much less a harbinger of commercial success. But “Clemency,” opening quietly in limited theatrical release amid bigger, noisier entertainments, deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to find: It’s a sterling piece of American realism, powered by the transfixing spectacle of a great actor at the peak of her powers.

As Bernadine Williams, the longtime overseer of this maximum-security institution, Woodard tightens her face into a mask of resolve that is somehow both coolly inscrutable and intensely expressive. None of the world’s troubles seem to have escaped her heavy-lidded gaze, and nary a flicker of a smile warms her hard-set features. In the opening scene, the camera holds on Bernadine as she marches down a corridor, steeling herself for the ordeal to come and sizing up the enormous gurney to which an inmate, Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo), will be strapped for his lethal injection. She’s been down this road many times before, but time and experience haven’t numbed her to its horrors.

The gurney is positioned upright in a way that suggests a cross, another instrument of state-sanctioned killing. It’s not the only time Chukwu infuses these grim procedures with the air of a religious ritual. There is also the presence of a sympathetic chaplain (Michael O’Neill) and the anguished weeping of Victor’s mother (Alma Martinez) from the witness room. The connection is made explicit by the Lord’s Prayer that escapes Victor’s throat in his agonizingly protracted final moments, crying out over the sound of a gradually decelerating heart monitor.

Due to an improperly administered injection, Victor’s execution goes horribly wrong, and Chukwu captures the grisly fallout with an excruciating mix of temporal duration and visual restraint. (The deliberately framed cinematography is by Eric Branco, the spare, methodical editing by Phyllis Housen.) Victor dies eventually, but his specter lives on. The botching of an already morally questionable, politically controversial procedure earns the prison undesired media attention and sends Bernadine, without hesitation or even visible panic, into damage-control mode.

Unfolding over the tense and difficult days that follow, “Clemency” uses this disruption of ordinary routine to bring Bernadine’s psychological strain to the surface —to measure the toll that her work has taken on her emotional and psychological well-being, and especially her marriage to her schoolteacher husband, Jonathan (an excellent Wendell Pierce). The mishandled execution doesn’t cause her problems so much as expose them. It also casts a shadow over the scheduled execution of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a man in his 30s who was convicted of killing a police officer as a teenager, and who is now waiting for the governor’s office to grant him an 11th-hour reprieve.

Chukwu spent several years researching “Clemency,” interviewing workers in the prison system and volunteering in clemency cases for women serving life sentences. Her stance on the morality of capital punishment is clear enough here, and for all the patience and subtlety of her filmmaking, she isn’t afraid to stack the deck in ways that arise all too persuasively from her real-world experience. If Victor’s botched execution is an argument against the death penalty, then Anthony’s possible innocence is another, as borne out by the tireless advocacy of his attorney, Marty (Richard Schiff), and the many civilians who gather outside the prison daily to protest his execution.

Chukwu wisely resists the temptation to put Anthony on trial. She trusts that it will require little stretch of the imagination, or even much in the way of empathy, for us to see him as the latest of countless men —many of them black —who have been railroaded by the criminal justice system for decades. You might think of Rodney Reed, the Texas death-row inmate who received a stay of execution just last month amid rumors of new evidence that might exonerate him. You might also flash back on men like Walter McMillian, who served six years on Alabama’s death row before a court in 1993 overturned his murder conviction; his story is told in “Just Mercy,” a slicker, more inspirational death-row drama that is also opening this week in theaters.

There is no comparable uplift in “Clemency.” Marty, as played by Schiff, is no charismatic crusader for justice; he’s nearing the end of a long, often thankless career, and his arguments with the warden seem to arise from a shared, collective exhaustion. Hodge’s performance, by contrast, emphasizes Anthony’s forceful humanity; he rages against the dying of the light behind bars, careening from wild optimism to soul-crushing defeat. In one of the movie’s most difficult scenes, Anthony realizes that his ability to choose the moment and manner of his death might be the one freedom remaining to him —and not for long.

Anthony’s interactions with Bernadine are brief but profoundly impactful, for them as well as the audience. That they are both black Americans, on opposite sides of a system that has failed them both, somehow strikes me as both an incidental detail and, in some ways, the entire point. Their kinship is couched in the usual procedural banalities, in the pressing issues of last meals and last rites. But Woodard and Hodge succeed in infusing even their tersest exchanges —a simple explanation of logistics, an expression of gratitude —with an almost subterranean depth of emotion.

The intensity of their dynamic burns away some of “Clemency’s” occasional missteps, including a few simplistic dream sequences and some overly on-the-nose dialogue between Bernadine and Jonathan, who’s fed up with his “empty shell of a wife.” It’s an understandable if not entirely fair sentiment. Bernadine isn’t empty; although she may have willed herself into an automaton-like stoicism, the guilt and doubt that have worn her down over the years are also testaments to her capacity for feeling.

When she goes out after work to drown her sorrows with a colleague (Richard Gunn), an ocean of repressed torment seems to come gushing out. And when Bernadine locks gazes with the camera in the story’s unflinching final moments, this powerfully bleak movie reminds us that imprisonment is, first and foremost, a condition of the mind and spirit. It pulls us in deep, making us complicit in a strange, terrible intimacy that ultimately draws no distinction between the living and the dead.

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