The new anti-death penalty film Clemency offers no surprises; some unexpected emphases, maybe, but no surprises. And given what message movies are, and what Oscarbait is, surprises weren't the point, of course. The only thing we can really hope for is that the execution of the not-surprises will be effective, and in this case, I believe that they mostly are. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, making her second feature, sixth film overall, and by far her most prominent production to date, is not the kind of intuitive, natural-born filmmaker who can breathe cinematic life into otherwise standard, formulaic material; but she does try, and even though it sometimes look like she's trying too hard, coming so soon after the last anti-death penalty message movie, Just Mercy, I am moved to offer my gratitude to a film that really wants to be visually complex and expressive, even when the results are sometimes labored and always very heavy.

But why not be heavy? It's a film about the death penalty. Specifically, it's a film about how much it takes emotionally and psychologically out of warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), who runs a maximum-security men's prison, and in that capacity is required to be present at every execution, in addition to bearing the brunt of the criticism from anti-death penalty activists and the misery of the families desperate to keep their loved ones alive. It's an unusual focal point, potentially one fraught with peril (the hot takes write themselves: "oh, so the worst part of state executions are how they make the prison wardens feel, oh boo-hoo for the cops"), and in the event, Clemency punts: it spends a whole lot of time leaving Williams's side to check in with the next man on her chopping block, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), to see how he feels about the hideous doom breathing rushing towards him. This is not, I think, the right choice: it leaves the film feeling a bit shapeless and unfocused. The ace in this particular story's hole is the unusual choice to look at a warden's moral and psychic exhaustion, and dedicating so much time to anything other than that warden's story (not to mention, devoting so much time to the story of a man who most likely didn't commit the crime he's in prison for - at some point, I hope we might get an anti-death penalty movie with the ideological bravery to take a guilty felon as its subject) feels like Chukwu is hedging her bets.

This is especially true given the film's best strength, which is obviously Woodard: a great actor giving what is, if not her best screen performance, close enough to it that nobody could give you a bad time for making that claim. It's hard to talk about it, even harder than screen acting usually is; it's very showily small acting, bombastic because how conspicuously subtle it is. The trick to Woodard's work here is that she's building out Williams almost entirely through absences and withholding. Chukwu's script focuses on how Williams does not express herself and puts walls between herself and every other human in the movie, and Woodard uses this as a license to create solid masks with her face throughout the film, creating a signature expression by clenching her teeth, slightly dipping her chin, and fluttering her eyelids without blinking. It is the look of a woman who has devoted every aspect of her being to not having emotions - not hiding emotions from others, but smothering them in her own being before they have a chance to arise in her conscious brain. The arc of the film lies in seeing whether Williams will be able to keep this up, or whether Woods's case is going to be the one that finally breaks her down. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it, but I will say that the film marks out the beats in this development largely through how Woodard delivers lines: early on, she mutters, then she takes pauses before she mutters, then she has to visibly gulp down what she wants to say before not saying it. Again, conspicuously subtlety.

As good as Woodard undoubtedly is, a lot of her performance is framed and augmented by Eric Branco's cinematography and Phyllis Housen's editing. Clemency is the kind of film that looks like it has somewhat flat and clunky style, in part because a lot of the most obvious style is also very trite, using low-key lighting and deep focus to really lean into the "death row is depressing and suffocating" vibe, which, no shit. But it's also the kind of film where the things that are easiest to love - that is to say, the acting (and not just from Woodard; Hodge is absolutely superb, and Michael O'Neill's small role as the prison chaplain and Danielle Brooks's showboating single scene as the mother of Woods's child are both obvious stand-outs) - benefits in almost invisible ways from style. The way Branco light's Woodard's face is a crucial element of how her character emerges, for example, exaggerating the depth of her eye sockets and pulling out lines on her face, making her look tired and haggard every single time we see her. And the cutting creates some exemplary reactions for everybody, slowing things down to a crawl and letting characters have long beats as their emotions ooze up from their guts.

It would be unfair to Clemency to suggest that it has nothing else to offer besides good character building. It is an effective piece of anti-death penalty agitprop, opening with one of the most horrifying, draining scenes of an execution I have ever seen in a fiction film, giving us a clear sense of the stakes for the film to follow, while also providing our first very clear sense of who Williams is by watching how she copes with a crisis seemingly by taking it as a nasty-minded insult to her authority and self-control. And for all that the moral debating in the film happens at an embarrassingly surface level, with one entire character (an activist lawyer played by Richard Schiff) who exists for literally no reason other than to have somebody onscreen recite the film's philosophies and moral takeaways for us, the bleary-eyed exhaustion that Woodard and Hodges put over in their performances is a perfect vehicle for the film to argue about the spiritual cost of state-approved executions, using nothing but visuals and tones of voice to hang a brutal weight on the viewer. It's not an especially artful movie, but artistry exists within it, and when it has a chance to lash out, it makes for a suitably grave and thoughtful experience.