Imagine a Tony Robbins session with a bunch of testosterone-fueled convicts and you’ll start to get an idea of “The Work,” an emotionally riveting documentary that may very well be the most powerful group therapy ever caught on camera. Co-directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous gained access to a tense four-day session at Folsom State Prison, where inmates engage with civilians in intimate conversations about their repressed frustrations. Scene by scene, their masculine armor falls away, and the tears erupt with volcanic intensity. The minimalist scenario, almost exclusively set within the confines of a nondescript room, foregrounds the visceral process of confronting anger and regret through a fascinating collaborative approach, with results that are alternately terrifying and cathartic.
“The Work” captures one of two annual sessions in which male prisoners and civilians joining together in close quarters to talk through their greatest fears and traumatic memories. While this initially comes across as a kind of morbid touristic indulgence, it quickly transforms into an intense communal bonding session that finds prisoners and free men alike shedding their tough fronts with explosions of rage that gives way to whimpers. This pattern continues for the duration of the movie, providing a remarkable window into a kind of anguish that transcends the boundaries of incarceration.
The filmmakers map out a series of mini-narratives around each confrontation as the crowd breaks off into groups, many of which focus on the civilians. One of them, identified only as Brian, begins initial conversations with a pair of prisoners uncertain of his ability to push past his rage and attain a level of emotional honesty. Hitting a wall, he wanders off to get some water as the two prisoners smile to each other. “It feels like looking in a mirror,” says one, and they identify the man as “a live wire.” Just like that, “The Work” makes it clear that the prisoners have been empowered by their experiences to the point where they’ve become the instructors, capable of pinpointing emotional fragility and the dangerous possiblities when it goes unaddressed.
The directors wisely stay close to the process using a fly-on-the-wall approach, avoiding the distraction of talking heads to interpret the larger significance of these sessions. The footage speaks on its own terms. A brief closing title card confirms the effectiveness of the approach, by revealing that no prisoner who has been released after experiencing these therapy sessions has returned.
It’s easy to see why: “The Work” chronicles a kind of breakneck psychoanalysis in which the origins of problematic behavior are dramatically expunged in public. The movie frequently takes on a taut, suspenseful quality as men resist pressure to explain their misgivings and eventually crack, sometimes violently lashing out as the group swarms in to control them.
The prisoners are a diverse bunch, and it’s remarkable to watch each one subject themselves to the scrutiny of these sessions, talking their anxieties associated with their past mistakes and anxieties about the future. A large Native American named Dark Cloud alternates between supportive mentor and testy ball of fury, while Asian gang member Kiki hesitates before creeping toward an astonishing meltdown over the course of several tense minutes.
“I want to be able to cry,” he admits, and he’s not alone. While such assertions run the risk of collapsing into sentimentalism, the movie evades those trappings with an intense, immediate visual style that heightens the drama of each encounter. As the men lock eyes in unnerving closeups, their battle for shared compassion transforms the movie into a remarkable psychological thriller. At times, this ongoing approach starts to take on a redundant quality, but more frequently the repetition endows each man’s struggle with universal resonance. The formula’s so compelling that it doesn’t beg for much else.
As their shouts echo throughout the room, the prisoners and their new companions confess their weakest traits. “I want to beat the shit out of somebody, but I’ve done that too many times.,” says one to a group of clearly understanding compatriots. In one extraordinary moment, a microphone taped to one man is crushed between another as they’re caught in a sudden embrace; pressed close to their chests, it picks up a heartbeat, and it’s thundering along at a rapid pace. Anyone watching “The Work” will be able to relate.
“The Work” premiered at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.