'The Work' film review: Emotionally exhausting look at inmates living in their own personal prison
At point one point in this film, one of the subjects sums up this unflinching documentary best: "This is ugly ass shit." Emotionally gripping and at times hard to watch, "The Work" (opening in select theaters Oct. 25) is a complete deconstruction of macho self-reliance and an arresting look at coping with trauma.
In short: Three everyday men are part of a group invited to join inmates of Folsom State Prison for a four-day group-therapy retreat.
What is being said is as powerful as the locked-in attentiveness of the group listening to their fellow man bare their souls. "The Work" is not merely a bunch of guys dredging up long-buried pain and talking about it - these men confront that pain. This is an exorcism.
The subjects look each other square in the eyes and speak frankly. This is a safe space without personal space. Their confessions are deeply personal, yet universal. Inmate and outsider alike speak of fundamental insecurities and spiritual despair. Normally, when a person emotionally or physically lashes out, the natural reflex is to recoil. But these guys rally around whoever is speaking. If hardened killers and career criminals can open themselves up to listening without judgement, then the audience can at least listen to what they have to say.
The film focuses on one group of a dozen or so men, in a single room, working out their inner demons. But occasionally, while one of the subjects are speaking, a primal scream can be heard coming out of another group. It is a gentle reminder that equally honest revelations are being exposed in the nearby groups.
With a runtime under 90 minutes, "The Work" is mercifully short - because this overwhelming experience is emotionally draining. Almost every frame is intensely focused on the subjects and their group dynamic. Aside from a few moments of welcome levity and quiet beats for the audience to decompress and take a deep breath, "The Work" runs its audience through an emotional wringer.
Ultimately, this film makes the argument for rebuilding the man through rehabilitation instead of just warehousing an inmate for a few years and releasing him back into the world. "The Work" doesn't attempt to present the inmates as model citizens. In several instances, it shows how quick to anger a convicted criminal can be and how their first reaction is to hurt someone or anyone. But the film also shows how the group therapy helps them defuse the situation.
Final verdict: Uncompromisingly raw and emotionally authentic, "The Work" challenges the audience to be as receptive and open as its featured subjects.
"The Work" screened at SIFF 2017. This documentary is unrated and has a running time of 87 minutes.