Often a film critic takes two routes when writing a review.
First, they can just tell you if you’ll like the movie or not. Basically, making recommendations so the every day movie-watching public can decide whether to rent or go to the theater.
The other route is to express how they personally feel about the movie and why they feel that way. To analyze it and not give much regard to what others feel about the movie.
For this review of “Clemency,” I’ll be doing both for a good reason. This is a film I was blown away by. I didn’t get a chance to see it in theaters when it made its wide release in late January (it has a smaller release in December 2019 to qualify for awards) and it was only made available for rental in late March.
Had I seen this movie in 2019, it would have most certainly made my list for best movies of the year. In fact, no movie released in 2019 emotionally affected me as much as this film. And the acting is second to none. It’s a powerful film that resonated with me.
And yet, I can’t recommend this movie to most people.
I know in my heart that 90 percent of people will find this movie too slow and too depressing. Yes, admittedly it is both. There’s not a lot of dialogue and the first hour of the movie is a slog and the real drama doesn’t kick in until the second hour. The pace is slow (although I prefer to call it deliberate) and it is devastatingly sad. It doesn’t make you cry in a sappy Hallmark movie way. This film is not one that ends making you feel hopeful. It makes you angry and deflated.
See? Not a film I can recommend to most people.
For those that aren’t completely turned off, “Clemency” is the story of a warden played by actress Alfre Woodard. It begins with an execution gone wrong and there’s another execution upcoming and the prisoner, played by Aldis Hodge (you know him from “Brian Banks” and “Leverage”), professes his innocence. The reality of the profession begins to weigh on the warden and she drinks regularly and is disconnected from her husband, played by Wendell Pierce (Bunk from “The Wire”).
Richard Schiff (Toby from “West Wing”) gives a great supporting performance as a defense attorney and there’s even a cameo from the actor who played Mr. Belding from “Saved by the Bell.”
Both Woodard and Hodge were definitely snubbed for acting Oscar nominations and I don’t say that lightly. The entire film is a Masterclass on great acting but these two truly impress.
It’s a movie that is obviously anti-death penalty but it doesn’t shove its politics down your throat. It’s based on the case of Troy Davis, a prisoner executed in 2011. While race and injustice are themes you could interpret from this movie, it actually takes a much more nuanced approach to tackling the death penalty. It shows the toll it takes on those who see this loss of life on a regular basis.
OK, so why am I giving this movie such a high grade of four and half stars?
Because writer/director Chinonye Chukwu has something to say and she doesn’t do it in big showy speeches. She does it with subtlety and actors’ facial expressions. It’s the epitome of less is more and her “show, don’t tell” approach makes for an engaging character study.
Every eyebrow raise and head turn has meaning in this film. The characters don’t always say exactly what’s on their minds. They try to be brave. They try to hold in what they’re feeling. But their body language doesn’t lie. And the conclusion (which might feel unfinished or unsatisfying to some) focuses on the journey that the characters take and how they are forever changed.
The tension isn’t really whether or not the inmate will be executed.
It’s not whether or not he is innocent of the crime.
It’s about whether Woodard’s character can hold it together and not fall to pieces.
You feel for her and her pain becomes your pain.
Also (minor spoiler but not movie-ruining), you never really find out if Hodge’s character committed the crime or not. He professes his innocence in a believable fashion, but there’s no attorney or prosecutor with indisputable evidence one way or another. But that’s not the point. The director doesn’t want you to be against the death penalty just because innocent people could be executed (like the theme of the 2019 movie “Just Mercy”). Chukwu shows you the full weight of taking a human life, even in the clinical and quiet conditions of a prison lethal injection. To see a human — any human — know it’s the last moments that they get to live, it’s tough to see.
Hodge’s character is seen as a political hero to people he’ll never meet. Protestors stand outside of the prison every day chanting for his freedom. His former girlfriend tells him that his death will affect people and he’ll always be remembered and loved by people he’s never even met.
His attorney tells him, “Everyone wants to be seen and heard. That’s all what we want in life. Well, people have seen you. People are listening to you.”
But none of that matters to a man who just wants to be with his family. He doesn’t want to be a symbol. He wants a life.
The film explores the idea about whether the death penalty actually brings closure to the families of the victims. Maybe it does, but maybe it doesn’t.
In the end, the movie is vague in its message. It doesn’t broadcast it in neon letters or spell it out for you. Instead, it hopes that you’ll have a discussion with someone and maybe think about the issue in a different way.
Truly, that’s what great cinema is meant to do: make us think, make us feel and make us discuss.
Yes, this movie has flaws. The first half is slow. Some characters are underdeveloped. Some scenes aren’t needed. But what it does right definitely overshadows any of that.
The film itself doesn’t rely on a lot of words. There’s no grand speech like the end of a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode where characters say exactly how they feel.
It’s a movie that simmers in its silence. And by the end, I was speechless as well.