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Very few movies have left me as lost for words as the documentary The Work, which chronicles four very intense days of group therapy. Just how intense? The sessions are in a maximum security prison, where civilians and convicts (many of whom have committed violent crimes) work through their issues. Guards are not allowed to even observe.
The Work mostly follows three men, Charles, Chris, and Brian, who have volunteered for the program. They clearly don’t know what they’re getting into any more than we do, since all we’re given is a few sentences of introduction about the program, which is presented as a form of prisoner rehabilitation. The trio have clearly come with a set of expectations and beliefs, as well as a desire to test themselves and get a vicarious thrill out of being so close to inmates. But none of these preconceived notions last very long, as one of the convicts experiences an emotional breakthrough (or breakdown, more accurately) so intense the other men have to hold him down.
“I didn’t expect this shit,” says a clearly jarred Charles. “No. No, you wouldn’t have came if you did,” responds Rick, a former Aryan Brother.
Perhaps the audience wouldn’t have either. Rather than an exploitative doc which glamorizes crime and prison life in America, The Work is an emotionally challenging film that forces us to take a look at masculinity, the prison system, and how we expect men to cope with trauma and difficulty, especially when it comes to paternal issues and fatherly rejection. Much has been written about the various roles women have to fulfill onscreen, but we tend to forget there are some ironclad rules for men too. And one of the most firm is that they cannot be vulnerable. But every single man on camera violates this rule sooner or later. Convicts and civilians alike cry, scream, and lay bare the many wounds others have inflicted and they themselves have caused.
Even in calmer moments, men from other groups can be heard crying out and screaming in the background. It’s deeply unsettling to see what results when all these guys actually follow through on their commitment to being authentic, rather than who they feel they must be when they’re either in the yard or on the street. But it’s also deeply uplifting to see various races and backgrounds sit down, talk, and actually listen to one another in an environment notorious for its racial segregation and violence.
However, putting so much focus on the therapy itself does leave a few questions unanswered. The co-founders are briefly shown, but no attention is given to them. How did they come up with this idea? Why do people who have every reason to keep their defenses up drop them? How exactly did director Jairus McLearly get access like this, on his first feature no less? And how were all his subjects so comfortable being filmed while going through such intense experiences? What exactly is the application process for this program like?
So many unanswered questions isn’t entirely surprising, since any interruptions of The Work‘s minimalist approach would detract from its power. But its intensity remains unbroken and undiminished.