'Clemency' review: Sandy Kenyon says film puts death penalty debate in the spotlight

The death penalty has always been a hotly debated topic in the United States, and it is now the focus of a new film that shows capital punishment in graphic detail.

"Clemency" brought home the debate in a visceral way, and watching a prisoner die by lethal injection is the single most harrowing experience I had at the movies last year -- and "Clemency" asks us to go through it twice.

In the opening minutes, we witness a botched execution. And at the end, another death row inmate has run out of options.

Aldis Hodge is excellent as a man facing execution for a murder that he insists he didn't commit, and Richard Schiff -- from ABC-TV's "The Good Doctor" -- is especially convincing as he tells the warden played by Alfre Woodard that he is going to fight for his client "right up until the very moment you stick that needle in his arm."

The warden's husband is a teacher, but she is really married to her job. In fact, Bernadine Williams is so unrelenting, you wonder if she has lost any and all compassion for anyone. But as time goes on, we start to see cracks in her stern facade.

A recent study of inmates currently on death row estimates that 4% -- four prisoners out of every 100 sentenced to die -- are actually innocent, so this movie and another far better film called "Just Mercy" couldn't be more timely.

Both pictures are worthwhile and feature terrific acting, but the newer one moves so much slower: a quarter hour could have been saved just by shortening the lengthy pauses between the lines.

This movie forces you to confront the death penalty and wrestle with the issue rather than just think about it. For that, I am grateful -- although this movie's pace is too slow for me to fully recommend "Clemency."

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