Another Look at “The Work,” One of 2017’s Essential Documentaries

Set among four days of group therapy sessions at California’s Folsom State Prison, the movie displays the soul-baring labor of introspection


Dark Cloud is an incarcerated violent offender raised by a violent father, and one of several dozen attendees of Folsom State Prison’s group therapy program. He sports prison tattoos, a colored kerchief, and Native American beadwork, all elements of the imposing facade associated with his Native prison-gang affiliation. He’s a burly man on the road to redemption, brimming with an anger he can’t quite understand, but his eyes betray a gentle, welcoming honesty — seen in a certain light, he’s like a wounded teddy bear whose largesse is matched only by his stature. At one point, he takes an observation of his gentleness as an insult — “Who’s fucking gentle?” — and must be restrained by multiple inmates so as not to attack the well-meaning bystander who gave him the compliment.

This is one of the many standout scenes from The Work, a documentary about men. You may not have noticed the film’s release last October — following an acclaimed festival run, it was only in theaters for about a week. But it’s made an impact among those who’ve seen it, even placing second in the Best Documentary category in the Village Voice Film Poll last month. (It can currently be streamed online via YouTube and Google Play.) “The movie we need right now” is often a misnomer applied to “the movie we want” (or, perhaps, a movie that’s long overdue), but there’s an urgency to The Work that makes it imperative for men — yes, all men — to experience. It’s the movie men need, especially straight and cisgender men, precisely because it’s something we may not want to confront. Chronicling a four-day therapy session within the walls of a correctional facility, the film — a collaboration between director Jairus McLeary and co-director Gethin Aldous — is intimate to an uncomfortable degree, placing its audience shoulder-to-shoulder with men who desire personal growth but lack the emotional tools to achieve it, if they can admit to that desire at all. Moreover, the film captures a sense of brutal honesty that even self-aware, socially conscious men may have been blind to until this post-Weinstein age, in which a series of scandals and resultant social-media movements have sparked a collective realization that demands introspection, not to mention an understanding of what “rehabilitation” truly entails. The desire to change is not nearly enough. The work must follow, and the work is more difficult than you can possibly imagine. The work is also liberating.

The Folsom session is populated by violent offenders, and led by other, similarly violent offenders, who have spent decades trying to put their violence behind them. There are gang members present whose colors are Native, Pacific Islander, White Supremacy. They’re asked to leave their politics at the door. There are attendees who have committed unspeakable acts of murder in the past, but there are also curious outsiders indeed, average citizens, like teachers and bartenders — who have stepped into the circle to figure out how to articulate their own “betrayals.” Some are suicidal; some fatherless; some condescending. There are also the timid, who don’t feel in step with these traditionally masculine figures. They must all search to understand themselves before seeking answers. They are all violent in one way or another: Physically, towards others; emotionally, toward themselves.

McLeary and Aldous’s camera is unflinching. It gets right in the faces of these walled-off men at their most vulnerable, as they dig deep into the defining moments of their youth for the very first time — moments that left gaping wounds these men were never allowed to tend to. Whether of something as traumatic as parental abuse or as seemingly innocuous as a father throwing a tantrum in the garage, these memories and their effects ripple through time itself. But while exploring the roots of emotional scarring is an enormous first step, it’s an act that involves merely the “What?” and the “Why?” of the equation. More daunting is the question of: “What next?”

The answer exists somewhere in a vast unknown, a deep emotional chasm for men who have spent their entire lives turning away from the question itself. It’s a space that offers no clarity even when stepped into — attendees who finally bring themselves to cry tend to unwittingly accompany their tears with rage and violent flailing. But just as vital as the release of these emotional revelations are the comforting presences of the senior inmates who step into the role of tour guide. These healers are men doing their own form of work, having spent one or two decades undoing the psychological damage inflicted over three or four. The process is not pretty to watch or to experience. Close-ups of subjects in one circle are accompanied by the offscreen noise of adjacent groups reaching their emotional peak. The hesitance of any given man to open his heart or mind is exacerbated by his having seen someone do just that twenty minutes prior — an openness that turned the person in question into a wailing, angry mess, writhing on the ground and being dogpiled by a dozen inmates to prevent him from lashing out. These are broken men whose only recourse is more breaking.

The sessions are, in a sense, reminiscent of the Affective Memory/Emotional Recall acting technique of Konstantin Stanislavski, the Russian theatrician whose system was the basis for Lee Strasberg’s “method.” None of what you see in The Work is acting, but its psychological DNA is cut from the same cloth, as “performers” dig deep into the details of memories and experiences in order to relive their emotions. Rather than suppressing their feelings, this time they confront them all the way to their logical conclusion. This time, violence is met with forgiveness. This time, parental rejection is met with standing firm and claiming one’s self-worth.

Actor education is a comparison worth noting not just for the therapeutic properties of Emotional Recall, but for the performative image surrounding modern “method acting,” at least in the public eye. In her Atlantic article “Hollywood Has Ruined Method Acting,” writer Angelica Jade Bastién touches on the distinctly masculine undertones of modern method actor stories: PR-spun tales not of getting in touch with honest emotions, but of outward displays of bravado that often result in self-detriment and the alienation of others. This modern method is the flip side to its original form, the more personal processes of Affective Memory and Emotional Recall, which hinge on introspection. Performative masculinity is not dissimilar, as “staying in character” within the rigid, preordained image of the masculine is the antithesis to truly getting in touch with one’s feelings. It’s a performance that builds walls between people rather than breaking them down.

The learned forms of malehood on display in The Work are akin to performance, only they’re so deeply rooted that the act of performing becomes the reality itself. It’s a constant feedback loop that must exist for the preservation of these men’s cultivated personas, especially in a world where such traditional forms of masculinity are no longer seen as vital for human survival. Fewer jobs require physical labor. Social and professional paradigms are shifting to be more inclusive of queerness and femininity, which the pillars of traditional masculinity were built in opposition to. This narrow display of strength, the uncaring, unfeeling outline within which men aren’t allowed to cry and must move forward through physical and social domination, is all some men have ever known.

Moments prior to taking umbrage with being called “gentle,” a trait incompatible with his masculine image, Dark Cloud opens up about his father for the first time. “Everything he fucking taught me is what got me here.” This, in effect, is the crux of The Work — the cycle it hopes to break, one set into motion by fathers both present and absent. We see the cycle at various stages, from childhood rejection manifesting as inadequacy, to ego wrapped in entitlement so as to preserve self-worth, to the inability to properly grieve for a sibling since doing so would be antithetical to one’s very sense of being. Over the course of the movie’s four days of therapy sessions, we, the audience, are pulled deeper into a space of interrogation, where fears and traumas are dredged up so they can be confronted. And when these men finally cry after hours of breaking down their emotional barrier — they all cry, each and every one — what comes pouring out is no ordinary sob. It’s a full-bodied, ethereal experience, the kind most of them have never had. As if something within them is reaching out from the depths, yearning to be set free.

What’s terrifying about The Work is that this introspection is merely the first step. It’s a snapshot, not the full picture of men becoming more in tune with themselves and ceasing to filter all emotional processes through outward aggression. What’s comforting about The Work, then, is seeing society’s forgotten and discarded beginning this journey — the lost causes that few thought deserving of a second chance, men so caught up in the cycle of violence that it defined their very existence. If these men can begin to come back from the brink, then the work is ultimately worth it.