Film Review: The Work

A raw, arresting look at men struggling to better themselves through a prison therapy program, 'The Work' could prove to be too arduous for some.
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From its elegiac opening images of men filing into California’s New Folsom Prison, it’s clear that the documentary The Work, as much as the work that’s chronicled in the film, will be intense. But not every one of the men pictured marching into the cellblock is an inmate, past or present—a handful of them have chosen willingly to enter the grounds of one of the most notorious maximum-security correctional facilities on the planet.

They’ve come to sit alongside inmates who are serving lengthy sentences for violent or gang-related crimes—ex-members of the Aryan Brotherhood, the Bloods, Crips, Skins and other criminal factions—to hash out their pain and miseries together in therapy. In a program administered by the Inside Circle Foundation, select inmates take part in intensive group-therapy sessions, led by facilitators, with the goal of accepting and understanding their past mistakes, and ameliorating whatever emotional damage might have been inflicted upon them by their circumstances.

As an opening title reports, twice a year at New Folsom, non-convicts are invited to join the inmates for four days of super-intensive group therapy. The four-day session that was captured by director Jairus McLeary and co-director Gethin Aldous turns out to be as intensive as could be imagined. For those who might be dubious about therapeutic practices in general—and about group therapy in particular—this is not the film to persuade skeptical minds. The Work doesn’t proceed with much intention of explaining the benefits of therapy. The point apparently is to witness what these men experienced in the sessions, and allow that document to stand as testimony to the effectiveness of the practice.

Joining in a circle of peers and strangers to dredge up deep-buried traumas or freshly suffered wounds takes some getting used to for the newbies onscreen, and merely watching it demands patience from the viewer. Sage is burned, hugs are shared and many tears are shed, among the confessions and angry confrontations, the harrowing stories told of murderous pasts and absentee dads.

Agile camerawork inside the room, astutely edited for the film, captures live, authentic breakthroughs, underscored by Adrian Miller’s eerie original music. And the brief interstitial breaths of air between session days, driving to and from the prison in the golden morning or evening light, offer well-timed relief from the emotional intensity.

As one inmate points out, this work can get ugly. The film is no pleasure cruise, either. The structure, at least, offers some comfort, with the segments easily chaptered by day, one through four, and the presentation of each man’s individual story tending to follow a similar path towards painful, quaking catharsis. You can bet that the 25-year old non-convict who declares after day one that he didn’t come there to cry will be sobbing by the end of day four. The formula treads a thin line between portrayal and promotion. It’s of note that the Inside Circle prison program is run by James McLeary, whose son directed this documentary.

And at least one of the session participants, called out by his partners in group for being aloof about the process, seems more like a reality-show contestant than someone sincerely interested in emotional healing. The inmates see right through such hypocrisy, while exposing themselves in the most intimate and unguarded fashion. Their journey in-session is rough, and this stark portrait is not for everyone. But patience can be rewarded by a richer understanding of the humanity of these inmates, whose dignity they feel is so often denied—and really it shouldn’t be, since many of them will return to life outside prison, where we should all hope they’ll be better, not worse, off for the time they spent incarcerated.

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