The Work: Changing Times, by Alexander Miller
The Work is a documentary that is flooded with emotions, and they are the strongest, most potent type of feelings that anyone can harbor. The film follows three men who volunteer to participate in a four-day group therapy intensive with level-four inmates at Folsom Prison. They’re seemingly ordinary individuals; Charles is a bartender, Chris is a museum associate, and Brian is a teacher’s assistant. Their motives and reasons for attending vary, but each has their reservations and concerns. The linear presentation deliberately establishes a narrative, and The Work is directed with an appropriately unembellished hand by Jairus McClary and Gethin Aldous, and the result is a striking expose where inmates and volunteers break down, work through, and reveal intensely personal, and raw emotional barriers.
In approaching a setting where level-four convicts would be a dominant presence, it’s helpful their transgressions color your perception, which is a major tenet in this movie, judgment. These men have committed crimes, and they have already been judged by a court of their peers. It is not for us to judge anyone, and the notion of judgment is a major theme throughout. As the concern of interacting with criminals is aired by some of the volunteers, it’s apparent that the clarity and compassion that these inmates embody are immediately visible and each radiates a kind of enlightenment. The film doesn’t pander or condescend to elicit any broad sympathies from either side of the fence; it’s the subsequent therapy that matters, and there’s a guiding level of focus that’s urgent but unhurried.
There is a thematic misstep when we see captions that read the crimes and sentences of each inmate of focus. Given the emphasis on personal growth and self-improvement, it feels odd that they would feel it necessary to underscore what would likely color the audience’s perception. However, this move feels more like it was done in answering the inevitable questions that would eat at many viewers if they weren’t informed.
As the film got underway, it felt like the intentions would be pretty straightforward, and that this four-day therapy retreat would be mutually beneficial. While that is indeed true, we learn that this is for the benefit of the volunteers. They’re the ones who are in need of help.
Upon meeting the three men, we can’t help but wonder what brought them there. The layers that are shed, highlighting that there’s no way to classify or rate the significance of personal struggle, there’s a calibrating sense of humanity in this circle, and their faculty for community is great. What might seem like issues that are dwarfed in the presence of people who have seen, experienced or even in some cases inflicted some genuinely horrific things, this doesn’t contribute or devolve into an atmosphere of competitive one-upmanship. They exhibit strength, bravery, and compassion throughout.
The Work features a series of intense scenes of where we see people at their most vulnerable and volatile; it’s not an easy watch, but it’s a testament that there are no easy answers, and the road to self-improvement is arduous. Here, the material speaks for itself. We see that there’s a new side of progress in prison reform. The atmosphere in these sessions is inspirational because the cooperative aim to heal. Everyone who’s there made a choice to do so, and we see, point blank, the process of this program, and it’s ability to contribute to rehabilitation for those on both sides of the gates.
We see how toxic masculinity can lead those into a life of crime, and how the inversion of that mentality can prove to be a more effective healing method than more traditional forms of therapy. At times there’s a no-nonsense intensity toward emotional confrontation; a face-to-face staredown and an outburst where it took over seven people to contain the situation were some of many intense scenes. While they also exercise more intuitive routes, like sound therapy and a particularly harrowing exercise where one of the volunteers pushes through a wall of people while confronting his father’s disparaging influence.
The Work is at times an inspiring account that exhibits what people can achieve by exercising and working toward a collective goal of rehabilitation; it’s a profoundly revealing experience that breaks down the fallacy of machismo and reinforces that the strongest, bravest thing a man can do is face his emotions. Seeing individuals we’d reductively refer to as “hardened criminals” embracing positive psychology, saying things like “stand up and hurt, cry like a man with your head up” is evidence that some things in this country are getting better. And in our current political climate, I’d consider the work accomplished in The Work to be a job well done.