Neon's incredibly powerful but thematically and cinematically dark prison drama Clemency, about the professional and personal inwardly tormented life of an affectless, by-the-books prison warden (Alfre Woodard) who oversees the facility's death row executions, was indeed a bold humbug counter program for the fussy holiday season. An agonizingly botched execution scene in the early frames cues viewers to this consideration of the moral and emotional implications of the death penalty. But outstanding as a work of art and craft, writer/director Chinonye Chukwu's Clemency is proof that any time of year is open season for quality films.

The key performances from stars Woodard, Aldis Hodge (as the inmate whose execution Woodard must oversee and who triumphed in the tragically overlooked Brian Banks), and the also superb Richard Schiff as the inmate's leftie-liberal lawyer) couldn't be better (or better cast). Supporting cast also perfect as is unobtrusive sound design that adds some light around so many dark edges. Chukwu wisely had the guts not to cop out with her film's unexpected ending which, like the performances, will linger with viewers long beyond final frames.

Clemency, thanks also to Chukwu's four years researching it, feels so real it's often painful to watch. But it's fine medicine for viewers who like to think and to experience a film beyond the usual cinematic salve.