The prison in “Clemency” doesn’t bear much resemblance to how penitentiaries are often presented onscreen, sterile to the point you wouldn’t say anyone lives in the cells despite the presence of the inmates and open to the point you can feel their emptiness, with bars and chain link fences there to remind that they are cages, but the outside peeking in far more constraining psychologically than the physical obstacles ever could be. In resisting claustrophobia, writer/director Chinonye Chukwu seems to be preparing audiences for the many reversals in store with her gripping feature debut, set on death row where the cleanliness is undoubtedly a reflection of the stewardship of Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), who runs the place with clinical efficiency.

Of course, there’s long been an inherent contradiction in capital punishment when whether or not one believes in it as a measure of justice, there’s an aspect of performance to carrying it out, acting as if there is a normal procedure for taking one’s life, even if it has been normalized. It’s a role that has become second nature to Bernadine, showing emotion as a courtesy to the loved ones of the soon-to-be-executed, only to allow none to be seen an hour later after an injection is botched – the man dies, but only after immense pain from a rupture of his veins, and while not impervious to his suffering or the public interest in it, she isn’t about to let anything interfere with the job she’s responsible for. As she tells her husband (Wendell Pierce) who suggests they retire together soon, “Mine is not a job, but a profession,” her preternatural temperament likely considered a part of how she considers it a calling.

However, it is dangerous to make assumptions in “Clemency,” as Chukwu brilliantly will present each of her characters in one light before showing them in another, sometimes flipping the switch within a scene. One such case is with Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), who at first is presented as a friendly colleague engaged in a genial conversation with the warden before it becomes obvious he’s making a plea for his client Anthony (Aldis Hodge), the next scheduled to get on the gurney unless he can win a last minute appeal. The conversation is civil until it’s not, a line that becomes a tightrope in Chukwu’s hands and even though the case could be a transformative one for Bernadette, the riveting part of “Clemency” is how meticulously Woodard reveals what Bernadine is actually feeling and the complexity the writer/director brings to the warden’s unique position, subtly showing the pressures of a job that doesn’t even involve Bernadette having a life in her hands when she is in the rare position of being a woman of color with significant power that she’s ever conscious of having to fight to hold onto.

While Bernadette shows remarkable discipline in how she presents herself to the world, the same could be said for “Clemency” as a whole, not ever giving into easy sentimentality when it looks to affect hearts and minds equally. It isn’t only Bernadette’s growing inability to compartmentalize what she does with who she is that gives the film weight, but Chukwu’s expansive view of a justice system where even the most passionate resign themselves to the reality that little can change and the longer they spend inside of it, the more insignificant they feel. But to experience “Clemency” is to see that although the notion of death with dignity may be a fallacy in a capital case, everyone before Chukwu’s lens receives the kind of compassion that one hopes can become infectious.

“Clemency” opens on December 27th in Los Angeles at the Landmark and in New York at the Angelika Film Center before expanding into limited release on January 3rd. A full list of theaters and dates is here.