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Laramie Movie Scope: Clemency

The effect of killing on executioners

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 20, 2020 – This film is about the psychological cost to those who legally kill people. This cost is sometimes called “moral injury.” According to the National Center for PTSD, moral injury can result from a transgression of “ ... deeply held moral beliefs and expectations” or “ ... culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life ... ”

This is not really a film about whether or not the death penalty is just or moral, although it is clear what side of that question it falls. Instead, it is about the moral injury to those assigned the grim duty of executing American prisoners. Because of that, this is a grim, relentless, depressing movie about institutionalized, ritualized killing.

Alfre Woodard (“12 Years a Slave”) stars as Warden Bernadine Williams whose many duties include carrying out the execution of prisoners. Woodard is an actor of great power and screen presence, but in this film, she dials it down and is very restrained, showing that her character is suppressing her emotions and denying to herself and her husband, Jonathan (played by Wendell Pierce of “Selma”) that the executions are taking a toll on her mental health.

Bernadine is clearly bothered by a botched execution early in the film, where the prisoner is convulsing before dying because the chemicals used in the execution are not working the way they are supposed to. Bernadine takes comfort in the rules surrounding the execution. She follows the rules and procedures to the letter. No exceptions.

Her husband, Jonathan knows what is happening to his wife and he begs her to retire, but she will not, claiming she is proud of her profession. After work, she anesthetizes herself with alcohol, but she still has nightmares, where she is the one being executed. She never seems to be able to get enough sleep because of this. She isn't the only one. Another member of her staff has to be taken off the execution team when he suffers emotional problems from the botched execution.

A defense lawyer, Marty Lumetta (played by Richard Schiff of “The West Wing” series) represents the next prisoner due to be executed, Anthony Woods (played by Aldis Hodge of “Hidden Figures”). Marty tells Bernadine and Anthony that this is his last case. He is tired of fighting the system. The prison chaplain (played by Michael O'Neill of “The Dallas Buyers Club”) is also tired of trying to comfort the doomed prisoners of Death Row. He is also retiring, but Bernadine continues on.

All of these people are tired, and what is wearing them down is the inevitability of death. They struggle against the death sentence, or they try to make peace with it, but it ends up grinding them down and making them all feel powerless.

As the date of Anthony's execution approaches, we see Bernadine's humanity withering away. She becomes weary and depressed and she feels powerless to do anything that will make any difference at all in what is to come. She feels that Anthony is already dead, and nothing is going to change that.

Alfre Woodard gives a powerful performance here, backed by an excellent cast. The institutional setting of the film is drab and lifeless, perfectly symbolizing the hopelessness of the situation these characters find themselves in. This is a powerful film that gets is point across, but it is also bleak and depressing. It rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2020 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]