Clemency (2019): 5 out of 10: Alfre Woodard plays a prison warden dealing with a fairly active death row. After a botched execution, she finds her next charge (Aldis Hodge) on the block touches her heart as she tries to break inside his barriers.
The Good: There is a lot of good in Clemency. It won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, after all. The acting by our leads Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge is at the top of their game. The movie seems very well researched and though it does not hide its position on the death penalty; it takes strides to show a balanced view (This is not The Life of David Gale).
The Bad: I want to fix this movie. There are some superb performances and touching scenes here but the screenplay and directing sabotage the actors.
There is a technique in dramas to hold a shot longer than necessary to make the audience uncomfortable. Clemency uses this technique to great effect during the opening botched execution scene. Unfortunately, director Chinonye Chukwu uses the same technique throughout the rest of the film.
If you have seen that Orthodox Jewish lesbian film Disobedience where Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams spit into each other’s mouths; it is that pacing. Every single shot seems a minute longer than it has to be. Again this is a fine technique if used sparingly or for an effect but it is mind numbing for an hour and a half.
The combination of editing and direction turn this into watching paint dry the movie. It is like a collection of art installations where you watch someone in a gallery sit in a chair for half an hour. I am hardly demanding MTV style editing, but holding a shot on an empty wall or buzzing lightbulb is not doing your movie any favors. Death row at a US prison is already not the most visually stimulating setting to begin with.
For a movie with slow pacing and not much happening from a strict narrative point of view, (cop killer on death row is scheduled to be executed is the entire plot) there is actually a lot in this film I would like to cut out.
I like Wendell Pierce (The Wire) as an actor, but neither he nor his character should be in this film. Pierce plays Woodward’s husband. If I were to speculate I would guess that writer/ Director Chinonye Chukwu has never been married or in a long-term relationship. I do not mean this as a personal attack. It is just that her dialogue for Woodward and Pierce, as a married couple, is nothing like the banter from any couple I have ever heard. They sound like they are negotiating the terms of a mortgage contract.
In fact, I cannot even figure out how long they are supposed to have been married for? Are they recently married? For two professionals (he is a teacher) living in a low cost-of-living area (One good thing about working in most prisons. They are not in the expensive part of the state) they seem to be living well below their means. Are they both coming off messy and expensive divorces before they found each other? Why am I making up a backstory to explain their relationship? Shouldn’t the movie do that?
You could jettison the entire husband subplot and have a tighter film. (I cannot emphasize enough that the marital woes add nothing to either the film itself or the characters in the film.). So if I am removing entire subplots and tightening up the editing, what exactly do I propose the movie do with the forty-five minutes that are now on the editing bay floor. Well, you do have Ms Woodward as a warden of a large prison. Have her do warden stuff.
The scenes where Alfre Woodard goes about her day in the prison are easily the most effective in Clemency. The movie makes an error by having her so focused on just the death penalty part of her job. She is after all warden of a large penal institution. Certainly there are other interesting things that would fill her day and make for a well-rounded character. Also, it would show why she likes the job as much as she does. Because clearly the death penalty part of the task does not agree with her. Showing her mentoring young prisoners or taking cash bribes from vendors might round out the character and show the appeal of the job.
The Ugly: One other advantage of jettisoning Wendell Pierce’s character is we would not have that scene where a teacher reads to his classroom a passage form a famous novel that, surprise surprise, happens to be the exact same theme as the movie we are watching, (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is our victim here). Scenes like this should never make it past the first draft of a screenplay.
One other thing that seemed strange. Various characters keep telling Aldis Hodge character about how everyone knows his name and how inspiring he, as a death row inmate, is. I don’t know where this commentary is coming from. Are they just blowing smoke to cheer him up? The movie provides zero evidence on its face. He is a convicted cop killer so lets be honest, a pardon is just not in the cards here. Sure, people are chanting his name today (there are a dozen protesters outside) but he will be forgotten a few minutes after his execution and they will start chanting the name of the next guy on death row.
It is as if at one point in the screenplay for the movie was about a famous death row case (Troy Davis is said to be an inspiration) but then it changed to this is other idea. The “this is one of a dozen executions that Woodward’s character has overseen and it is all done in a business as usual way” idea. These out of left field speeches to Hodge’s death row character seem like a vestigial part of the screenplay from an earlier and long dead draft.
In Conclusion: Anti-death penalty movie The Life of David Gale was a train wreck. Roger Ebert gave it a rare zero stars and said “let it be said this movie is about as corrupt, intellectually bankrupt and morally dishonest as it could possibly be without David Gale actually hiring himself out as a joker at the court of Saddam Hussein.” (BTW Roger it should be Jester not Joker). But you know what train wrecks can be interesting. I remembered The Life of David Gale, and it came out seventeen years ago. I doubt anyone will remember Clemency. Some great acting and research sacrificed at the altar of the auteur.