Jairus McLearly’s The Work is an odd mixture between a fly-on-the-wall documentary about what makes some men turn to violence, and a free-spirited all-male therapy session where the most visceral feelings are deliberately brought to the surface and allowed to run free. While this film might sound like the sort of thing you’d want to avoid given half a chance, make no mistake, this is not just an exercise in soul-searching by a group of overprivileged navel-gazing males enjoying a bonding session in the woods, but a rather touching, enlightening and at times harrowing experience, which is likely to leave its audiences shaken.
Filmed over 4 days at Folson Star Prison, The Work follows three men from outside the prison as they take part in an extraordinarily cathartic group therapy session called “The Work”. As each man undertakes a gruelling process of prodding and baiting by the inmates, some of which are serving life sentences for violent crimes, we see them slowly start to unravel. Raw and visceral reactions are brought to the surface even when the subjects are reluctant to share or find the whole process rather ridiculous or are simply embarrassed and confused by the whole thing.
As the free men are one by one questioned by the inmates, a deep sense of camaraderie emerges between the two groups. Tempers run high and anger is contained by those who know more than anyone how much it can cost them. McLearly, whose own family has had a deep association with the programme for years, navigates the whole process with meticulous precision, never interfering or even asking any questions. His ability to catch every raised voice and every facial expression is impressive if not always necessary. In fact, as man after man is paraded in front of the inmates and made to open up about their past, it comes a time where the viewer might be deserving of a break from such a gruelling exercise, something the director is unwilling to provide or is perhaps way too involved in the programme to appreciate.
As the session reaches its final stages, an idea begins to emerge and we start to realise that the one thing all these men have in common is a poor relationship with their own fathers. As they cry, hug and even attempt to fight each other, the men’s vulneberalfity is highlighted by the way they speak so candidly about their own mistakes and regrets. Perhaps the most surprising thing is to hear men, some of which who are barely literate, be so articulate about their own feelings. Having said that, one wonders if “the work” isn’t just teaching these men to simply repeat what they’ve head, or if they truly believe in redemption.
The Work is as visceral as it is informative, but where it does miss a chance to make a fully convincing argument for redemption, is in the director’s inability to detach himself from the process. Lengthy, and at times, rather jarring exchanges could have easily been intercut with interviews with those running the programme, which would have perhaps helped the audience understand what these people have achieved though these sessions. On the whole, McLearly does a great job in showcasing something not many of us would have been aware of, but the film is ultimately let down by a less than gripping narrative.
The Work is released on September 8th.