The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"THE WORK"

The Work

The Work is a monumental achievement in documentary filmmaking. Profound and transformative, it utterly absorbs you for every single second of its running time. All truly great docs show you things that you would likely never get to see otherwise, which is certainly the case here. It adds up to a viewing experience that won't easily be forgotten.

Every year, Folsom Prison offers a four-day group therapy retreat. The convicts – gang members incarcerated for the most serious of crimes -- agree to leave their differences in the yard. They come in ready to heal and help others be healed. Members of the public are also invited to sign up. Directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous get their cameras in close on the proceedings, providing an intimate look at how civilians and cons work together to confront their individual demons.

The people we meet are fascinating. Rick, one of the program's longest participants, is a member of the Aryan Brotherhood struggling to understand how his life went so woefully off track. Dark Cloud belongs to the Native American Brotherhood, and his only coping skill is lashing out in aggression. Those are two of the most prominent convicts spotlighted. The civilians are Charles, a man looking to deal with the father whose absence has significantly impacted his life, and Chris, a meek young guy with insecurity issues.

Then there's Brian, a teacher's assistant with a compulsive, self-destructive need to judge other people harshly, usually to their faces. Perhaps needless to say, that doesn't always sit well with the inmates. The most dramatic scene in The Work shows Brian making a flippant remark to Dark Cloud during a moment of extreme anguish, thereby setting off a torrent of rage.

There is an astonishing “hands-on” component to the group therapy. Because most of these inmates have learned to deal with unpleasant feelings through violence, they often have to be physically restrained when their emotional dams break. The other inmates pile on top, offering words of comfort and encouragement, while preventing the subject from doing what comes naturally. Facing their feelings rather than fighting them away proves to be incredibly freeing for these men. We're watching them learn a new whole way of coping.

The Work really challenges your view of the cons, forcing you to see them not just as criminals but as people struggling with pain and sorrow. Yes, many of these men are murderers, yet when they enter the therapy space, they let down their guards and bring out their humanity. Perhaps the most enlightening thing about the documentary is its reminder that there are reasons why people become criminals. Calling someone “bad” or “evil” is too easy. Some convergence of events brought them to do bad or evil things, but these are still thinking, feeling human beings.

The raw nature of the filmmaking adds to the overall impact. Cameramen walk into one another's shots. Screams from other groups are heard in the background. During one emotionally-charged exchange, two inmates hug, their embrace muffling the microphones they are wearing. We can't really hear the words they speak, but the mics capture the sound of their heartbeats, and that tells us everything we need to know. Such elements enhance the sense of urgency inherent in the therapeutic process.

The Work is certainly intense to watch. Souls are laid bare to such a degree that you almost feel like a voyeur at times. Great credit must go to the movie's subjects, who allowed the cameras to record them at their most vulnerable – certainly a state many of them have spent their lives trying to conceal. Group therapy is designed to create an atmosphere where participants don't allow each other to run from their problems. The Work is a riveting examination of that process taking place among some of the most damaged people imaginable.

( out of four)


The Work is unrated, but contains mature content and strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 29 minutes.


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