In its animalistic spectacle of snot, sweat, and agony from the depths of wounded men, The Work achieves something that borders on bodily horror.
Shot over four days of intensive group therapy sessions at Folsom Prison, the film captures men wrestling with the seeds of toxicity that have been planted within them throughout their lives. The 2017 documentary is one of the more distinctly compelling offerings from the recent influx of hyper-real, soul-baring documentaries. It’s also one of the most essential.
As the film opens, the viewer is immediately thrust into the therapy session. A handful of curious civilians (or “outsiders,” three of whom the film tracks closely) are integrated among the incarcerated and all pretense is left at the door. For those who participate, including some serving life sentences, the program is intended to provide the opportunity to look deep within themselves and identify individual as well as collective traumas. As portrayed by co-directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous, this is often a horrifyingly visceral process.
The first of many exorcisms concerns a convict who wants to grieve for his late sister. The inmates help him get there, and his immediate response to the tears that follow is to lash out violently. In another case, one of the outsiders is forced to confront his fine-tuned mask of hypocrisy after criticizing one of the inmates. Such outbursts are always met with restraint as well as positive reinforcement. It isn’t ideal that anyone gets hurt, but it’s also imperative that the men embody their anger during these sessions.
Watching this catharsis unfold shouldn’t be particularly surprising, but it is. The film says so much about how men are conditioned to suppress sentiment until they are no better than beasts. What The Work ultimately posits is a concept of a new masculinity. By welcoming participants from all walks of life into the group therapy program, a state of emotional equality is achieved in which no one has to suffer alone. Here, a killer and a bartender can regard one another as kin, and absent fathers can be absolved in the realm of subconscious. There’s no “good” or “bad” here — it’s all accumulative heartache, and it takes a circle of open minds to climb the mountain.
While the documentary's content slightly overpowers its form, it's a well constructed film. Amy Foote’s editing is tight and riddled with aggressive anxiety, and the soundscape of Folsom is an evocative stand-out. In a particularly stunning moment, one inmate hugs another and the mic captures each furious heartbeat. As a documentary, The Work is invasive without approaching exploitation, searching for truth in the most apocalyptic of meltdowns and empathy in the most seemingly detached eyes.
Ultimately, this is a story about healing, and it should be taken as a call to action. We, men, need to try harder, if not for ourselves than for the generations that follow. Withholding love, whether from ourselves or from others, is the true enemy — and we wonder where we got that chip on our shoulder.
The men in The Work are on the first step of a remarkable, transcendental journey. By rejecting the same toxicity that has long provided them false comfort, they’ve already lifted a considerable weight. This sort of work remains a prospect that so many men simply don’t want to consider. It is a much-needed reminder to open our hearts, our minds, and our tear ducts, even when the thought of doing so induces unfathomable anxiety. There can be freedom in fear.
The Work | A film by Jairus McLeary & Gethin Aldous | June 23 | Sat 6:30 pm | University of Southern Maine, 96 Falmouth St, Portland | www.space538.org