Sometimes acting seems like possession. That’s how Alfre Woodard’s performance in “Clemency” feels as she violently sweeps you up with the force of her talent. It takes a while before you grasp how deep she’s gone. As Bernadine Williams, a warden at a men’s prison, Woodard enters with a stealthy lack of showiness. She’s playing the very model of a dispassionate overlord whether Bernadine is managing employees or asking a death-row inmate about his last meal, giving everyone the same exacting courtesy even if that semblance of composure has started to quietly crumble.
The fissures aren’t fully visible when you first meet Bernadine, whose every word, gesture and expression seems to have been carefully calibrated to meet the unusual demands of her profession. Everything in her world is in its place, every hair has been managed, every response, too. At work, she sits at an orderly desk that looks too large for her, a wall of putty-colored filing cabinets looming behind her. Each cabinet holds untold numbers of documents that together form a monument of tragedy, a compendium of death and destruction, lost lives and grim pain.
Working in a near hush that dovetails with the muted palette, the writer-director Chinonye Chukwu creates a persuasive, controlled, methodically coherent world for Bernadine. She’s at ease floating in her bubble of apparent calm, seemingly content to go with the flow as she relaxes at home with her husband (Wendell Pierce) or downs a drink or two at a bar. This pervasive tranquillity is strengthened by the harmonizing production design and cinematography that — with little clutter and deep shadows — give the different locations a similar look and vibe. Over time, scene by scene, these spaces blur together, locking Bernadine in claustrophobic sameness.
She begins falling apart when an inmate’s execution by lethal injection is botched, an unspeakable, frenzied calamity that plays out under Bernadine’s close supervision. The bungled execution rattles the prison, but Bernadine initially seems more concerned with the investigation that it generates. Yet even as she briskly gets back to business, a near-imperceptible change seems to have occurred, affecting her like a slight drop in the barometric pressure. She has trouble sleeping, which doesn’t seem unusual. But as she goes through the motions, she also seems increasingly detached from everyone and everything in her life, including her fretful husband.
Chukwu escalates the stakes and deepens the drama with another prisoner, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a death-row inmate making his last appeal. Chukwu’s writing can sometimes be too on the nose, spelling out the already obvious, but for the most part she doesn’t over-explain Anthony, whose despairing resignation and profound isolation Hodge fills in with a discreetly shutdown physicality and a gaze turned inward. It’s an achingly moving performance that’s shrewdly balanced by a small, heart-heavy turn from Richard Schiff as Anthony’s lawyer, an anti-death row activist whose sagging affect suggests that he’s spent a lifetime fighting a losing battle.
As the clock on Anthony’s most recent appeal runs out, Chukwu deepens the connections between warden and prisoner, putting the characters into play even when they’re apart. Both Bernadine and Anthony are captives of their worlds, legally, spiritually, morally. This sounds more simplistic and schematic than what plays out onscreen, where the vividness of the main performances tends to mitigate the scripted sins. Chukwu further complicates the story with a few other lesser characters, including some angry, grieving relatives and Anthony’s old girlfriend (a very fine Danielle Brooks), who makes an unexpected if predictably disruptive appearance.
Woodard’s performance gathers its astonishing force incrementally, in subtle choices and inflections that you might not even register as actorly decisions. When Bernadine first patrols the prison, you see a woman supremely in control, a professional whose casual authority informs her every gesture and whose absolute power has relaxed her posture, determined the rhythm of her gait, put an easy swing in her arms. That same power is what finally undoes Bernadine, a tragic figure whom Woodard brilliantly dismantles piece by ravaged piece, tearing apart a false front — and the larger institution this woman faithfully upheld — with unapologetic ferocity.