Let’s get another two quick reviews out today shall we? Next up is CLEMENCY, which is probably the last film that toed the December 2019/January 2020 release date line that I will give my critique on (and it’s also the last one I truly know about). It was released very limited wise, in just two theaters (NY & LA) on December 27th 2019 to try and get a campaign going for Alfre Woodard for Best Actress at the Academy Awards. I don’t think it had much of a wider expansion, it definitely didn’t play at a theater near me around January, and I think it was just dumped on VOD a month or two ago. While this movie is in the 90 percentile on Rotten Tomatoes and there is giant praise of Alfre Woodard’s performance, I myself am going to say, in my own opinion of course, all of that is a bit exaggerated. Clemency is one of those one time watch factors for me, not because it is a bad film (although it has some major flaws), it is half way decent to be sure, but it was just too God damn depressing for me. And while Alfre Woodard’s performance was good, I didn’t think it was Oscar worthy (she for sure though made up for her weird performance in the Luke Cage Netflix TV series here, IMO). And while the story is supposed to show how an extreme career, specifically this one being a warden to a prison that also carries out executions, effects not only your outside life but also wrecks havoc on your personal demons, a lot of the examples used have been done before. You’ve seen them before too: getting drunk to temporarily make the pain go away, fighting with your spouse, crying at moments when you are supposed to show remorselessness and/or strength. It’s because of all this familiarity why I didn’t like it as much as I probably should have.
That’s not to say I didn’t like it. It’s a very well made film with very good acting, it’s just that I felt like it could’ve dug deeper into the personal demons motifs more. Per IMDB’s log line, it describes Clemency as: “As she prepares to execute another inmate, Bernadine must confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, ultimately connecting her to the man she is sanctioned to kill.” The main problem with this film being able to dig deeper into those issues is the problem with its focus. At first, it focuses solely on Alfre Woodward character, as it should, she is the lead, but juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust after it seems like it gets past all the personal demons we’ve seen before in better films and will go even further…it shifts focus to the inmate that is soon going to be executed. Which is completely fine by the way, but when I say it shifts focus, it COMPLETELY SHIFTS focus. At that point into the film, if it wanted to more accurately and more emotionally portray both Woodard and the inmate’s inner demons, they needed to interact with each other more than they ultimately ended up doing. They have only a couple of brief interactions with each other, all of which have him refusing to talk to her. Most of his interactions don’t involve her, and is just the inmate, played wonderfully by The Invisible Man’s Aldis Hodge by the way, interacting with a lost love, his lawyer, etc. But in order for the movie to have earned MY emotional investment, Woodard and Hodge needed more scenes and scenarios together. And when it failed to bring me that, it failed to garner the same praise from me that it had other critics.
This feels like two movies cobbled and edited into an hour and 50 minute movie. One movie where a prison warden starts to get too emotionally attached to those inmates being executed and another movie where an innocent inmate is on death row, hoping upon hope that the governor’s office will either grant him clemency at the last moment or his appeal goes through. That’s another thing I didn’t like a little about the movie. I think the movie should’ve challenged the viewer more, playing with the audience of whether this “cop killer” truly did the crime or not. However, there is one scene of the warden driving to work, and the inmate’s lawyer is doing some kind of radio interview, and the lawyer lays out all the evidence out of why he’s innocent. Why they gave all that info in a compacted two minutes instead of spread throughout the entire film is beyond me. And if all of that evidence was there in real life, it is really hard to believe that he would’ve been denied an appeal and not given a retrial. I don’t know, I can’t say anything about it because I’m white, and the character was black, and there is some awful racial injustice happening around the world right now that I couldn’t even begin to explain let alone comprehend. My point is I think the movie should’ve made it unclear whether he did it or not, to try to have the audience just invest with the character because he is being put to death against his will. If you can make a human being care and feel for a person being put to death, even if it is unclear whether the inmate did do the crime or not, that is some powerful, powerful cinema. On the other hand if you are going to go the route of, “this person is being denied appeals and put to death just because he’s black and he really is innocent,” you need to MAKE the movie about racial injustice. This movie wasn’t about that at all, hence why this whole film felt very unfocused for me.
Wow, this review is longer than I meant it to be as it feels like I’m trying to defend myself from calling this film “only okay.” I guess I am. But here’s the thing, two movies about inmate’s being put to death came out around the exact same time, and I would definitely recommend Just Mercy over this because that film had fantastic focus. It focused on two things: racial injustice and the relationship between Michael B. Jordan, and the inmate on death row played by Jamie Foxx. If that film, halfway through, had completely shifted focus to Brie Larson’s characters efforts, or another inmate perhaps, and then eventually got back to Jordan and Foxx, I would’ve said the exact same thing about that film as I am this one. It has all the ingredients there, writer and director Chinonye Chukwu just needed to punch up and strengthen the script. Moved some things around a little, added a little here and there, or taken a couple of things out. That’s all. The atmosphere in this film is perfect, the camera work is perfect, and the acting would’ve been perfect if it hadn’t had shifted attention to detail mid way through the film. It’s just frustrating for me, because right now and certainly while watching it, I could imagine the perfect film that Clemency could have been. But in the end, I have to stick to my movie loving instincts and I just can’t grant it clemency from being “only okay.”