×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

SXSW Film Review: ‘The Work’

The SXSW documentary competition winner gives audiences a raw look at a unique group-healing process between inmates at Folsom State Prison.

Locked away in Folsom State Prison, the tough, tattooed men seen in “The Work” are serving heavy-duty time, in some cases multiple life sentences, for violent crimes. Most will never be released, and yet, as we discover via Jairus McLeary’s remarkable vérité portrait — winner of the SXSW documentary competition — a handful of these maximum-security inmates are committed to mastering their tempers, getting in touch with their emotions, and making an effort to help outsiders do the same.

Pushing its cameras past the gates, past the guards, and even past the imaginary emotional barriers its subjects erected years ago in order to deal with their personal demons, “The Work” brings audiences into the “Inside Circle,” an intensive four-day group therapy program where society’s worst offenders interact with individuals from the free world. It’s not hard to imagine the benefit messed-up convicts might see in addressing their issues; less clear, however, is whatever strange impulse might draw free men to participate. This isn’t a standard social work situation where volunteers do it for the prisoners’ benefit. No, the non-incarcerated participants have issues of their own to confront as well, and by the end of the film, it’s clear that these outsiders actually stand to gain the most from the dynamic.

McLeary first observed the Inner Circle Foundation’s “work” — as the prisoners call the exorcism-like process by which they expel rage from within — in 2004, and his continued involvement with the program over the subsequent decade makes him uniquely suited to document what they do. (Likewise, co-director Gethin Aldous agreed to volunteer with the organization before filming began.) That dedication earned the trust of their thick-skinned subjects, who demand nothing more than to be seen with a complete lack of judgment. By participating in the film, they’re opening up not only to the people in the room, but to audiences everywhere: It is perhaps the bravest thing any of them will ever do — and that applies just as strongly to their guests.

As for the group therapy process itself, there’s always a risk when outsiders observe people pitched into intense soul-bearing sessions of which they aren’t directly a part. Like watching footage of snake healers or an evangelical tent revival, it’s easy to feel left out — except that McLeary’s cameras seem to penetrate that natural buffer, offering us a seat in the circle, or else directly over the shoulders of those involved. When the participants convulse and cry, the film’s empathetic connection is so direct and so strong, audiences may be driven to weep as well.

Because fireworks seem to occurring at practically all times (from the collective impact of a freight-train-like chant to outbursts from other groups working in the same room), the film focuses on six people, three of them convicts, the other three outsiders, tracking their progress over the four-day event. Whether truly representative of what went down or shaped somewhat by editor Amy Foote, the resulting footage gives the impression of six individual arcs: characters who began the event in one place and measurably evolved over the course of the “work.”

At the end of Day One, outsider Chris (a seemingly mild-mannered museum worker hoping to address a certain lack of direction in his own life) candidly says, “I didn’t come here looking to cry, and I don’t want to feel like I’m letting them down if I don’t” — a sentiment that group-therapy skeptics should find easily relatable. But sure enough, by Day Four, even he is having the breakdown he didn’t think possible, leveraging the connection forged with these hard-boiled strangers to confront the ways his father made him feel inadequate. “The Work’s” power comes in watching how well the prisoners (many of whom have been through the program multiple times before) adapt to helping him through this personal catharsis.

When someone begins a new thought with the word “but,” another jumps in with a therapy-trained insight: “And, not but,” he says. “But takes away everything that has come before.” Say what you will about prison’s capacity to reform, but this documentary makes clear that in its own special way, the “work” is working.

SXSW Film Review: 'The Work'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 15, 2017. Running time: 87 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Blanketfort Media presentation. Producers: Alice Henty, Jairus McLeary, Angela Sostre, Miles McLeary. Executive producers: James McLeary. Rob Allbee, Gethin Aldous.

Crew: Director: Jairus McLeary. Co-director: Gethin Aldous. Camera (color, HD): Arturo Santamaria. Editor: Amy Foote.

More Film

  • Avengers: Endgame

    'Avengers: Endgame': Fans and Theaters Assemble for Biggest Marvel Movie Ever

    For San Diego resident Shawn Richter, “Avengers: Endgame” is more than the conclusion to a monumental period in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As the West Coast branch chair of Avengers Initiative, a cosplay charity that raises money for causes like the Ronald McDonald House Children’s Charities, the comics of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are [...]

  • Jillian Bell appears in Brittany Runs

    Amazon's 'Brittany Runs a Marathon' Sets Summer Release

    “Brittany Runs a Marathon” will be rushing to theaters on Aug. 23. Amazon Studios dated the comedy on Wednesday. The pic, starring Jillian Bell (“Rough Night,” “22 Jump Street”), won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. The flick follows the titutal Brittany, who decides to run around New York City in order to [...]

  • Lionsgate Hires Lynn Whitney in Marketing

    Lionsgate Hires Former Warner Bros. Exec Lynn Whitney

    Lionsgate announced Wednesday that Lynn Whitney will become head of worldwide paid media, partnerships, promotions and consumer products. Whitney was formerly the executive VP of worldwide media at Warner Bros.   In her new role, Whitney will build out media campaigns for movies like Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron’s romantic comedy “Long Shot.” “I am [...]

  • El silencio de otros

    Film Review: 'The Silence of Others'

    “Forgiven but not forgotten” is a platitude we routinely use to end disputes both petty and grievous, but it’s the reverse outcome — the mass forgetting of crimes and conflicts never truly resolved — that itches away at a post-Franco Spain in “The Silence of Others.” Soberly chronicling the ongoing legal battle of General Franco’s [...]

  • A Womans Work-The NFLs Cheerleader Problem

    Tribeca Documentaries Explore Gender Issues in Sport

    Up until recently, what it meant to be a professional female athlete in a world dominated by men wasn’t an issue that garnered high volumes of public interest, let alone national headlines. But that all changed in October 2017 when stories from the New York Times and the New Yorker detailing sexual allegations and improper [...]

  • Lizzo Coachella Valley Music and Arts

    Lizzo Joins Cardi B and Jennifer Lopez in Stripper Film 'Hustlers'

    After the release of her third album and a pair of high-profile Coachella performances, Lizzo announced today that she will be joining Cardi B and Jennifer Lopez in the stripper-themed film “Hustlers.” Based on a true story, the film focuses on strippers who band together to turn the tables on their wealthy Wall Street male [...]

  • Ralph Fiennes attends a special screening

    Ralph Fiennes on Directing Rudolf Nureyev Biopic: 'It's Been a Very, Very Long Road'

    Ralph Fiennes celebrated his latest directorial outing, “The White Crow,” on Monday night in New York City. The Sony Pictures Classics film tells the story of legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev. “It’s been a very, very long road. We were mad. We were mad to take on this subject of Rudolf Nureyev. Mad. Completely mad,” Fiennes [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content