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'Clemency': Alfre Woodard Soars as a Tortured Executioner

The year's big Sundance prizewinner is a glum bummer, but a showcase for great actors

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 53 minutes

Stars: Alfre Woodard, Wendell Pierce, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff

Director: Chinonye Chukwu

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When we first meet Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard, 67), a maximum-security prison warden, she seems like a person who's got everything under strict control.

Her prison looks a bit like the world of George Lucas’ sci-fi film THX 1138: futuristic, austere, hyperrational, totalitarian. But in the preternaturally expressive eyes of Woodard — among the greatest actors alive — we sense the executions are getting to her, and control is an illusion that she, and the whole system, struggles in vain to maintain.

This is the 12th execution she's supervised, a macabre kind of theater piece staged for an audience of relatives observing from behind a big window.

Something goes wrong with the lethal injection. Instantly, it's a bloody mess — Grand Guignol theater. Warden Williams yanks the curtain to hide the mess, but you can't unsee the ugliness. Afterward, you see it in her haunted eyes. She drinks too much. She sleeps on the couch, has nightmares in which she's on the death gurney and the dead prisoner looms over her.

She keeps her doting schoolteacher husband (Treme's brilliant Wendell Pierce, 56) at arm's length. “I need a pulse,” he protests. But she's miles away, vanishing inside herself, a prisoner condemned to solitary confinement. “I am alone, and nobody can fix it,” she confesses to a friend.

Nor can she save the next victim she's assigned, a guy (Underground's excellent Aldis Hodge) convicted of killing a cop, maybe unjustly. He and his sad-eyed attorney (The West Wing's Emmy-winning Richard Schiff, 64) say so; we never find out. This is his last case because he can't bear the futility anymore. “You can't save the world,” she tells him. “That's the problem,” he mourns.

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But her job is to explain people's last-meal options, like an attendant on a flight to heaven, to efficiently facilitate their extinction and to describe the particulars of their execution while they quietly weep. Her life is a kind of personal extinction, depicted with meticulous realism, yet it all seems like a waking dream.

Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, the first black woman to win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize (for Clemency), plays everything ver-r-ry slo-o-ow, letting each moment linger and sink in and echo in memory, like a condemned man's last footsteps down a cold white concrete corridor.

This is partly good and partly bad. It's good because she has a nonpareil cast that nails every scene with uncanny perfection. It favors the deeply emotive acting style that has earned Woodard an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe and 16 Emmy nominations, with wins for Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Miss Evers’ Boys and The Practice. If she doesn't get an Oscar nomination for Clemency, she got robbed.

But she's apt to get robbed because Chukwu's clunky plotting, poetical vagueness and aversion to resolution often make her muted style dull and aimless.

It's not the kind of drama that makes Oscar voters stand up and cheer — they prefer big, simple emotions and Hollywood endings. This is a film for the politically hyperconscious, glumness-loving crowd at the Sundance Film Festival.

Don't get me wrong, it's still a powerful experience. The story may leave you traumatized or unsatisfied, but the characters and the acting achievement you'll never forget.

AARP critic Tim Appelo was Amazon’s entertainment editor and a critic for The Nation, Hollywood Reporter, EW, People, MTV, LA Weekly, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.

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