Were it only 30 minutes instead of a feature, The Work would be one of the most powerful documentary shorts of the year. But stretched out to nearly an hour and a half, its intensity is diluted and it can feel a little repetitive.
But make no mistake: you will be overcome with emotion at multiple points in this harrowing film. Directors Gethin Aldous and Jairus Mcleary take an inside look at an unorthodox program at Folsom State Prison in California, where lifer inmates meet with troubled men on the outside and they all confront their demons in radical group therapy sessions. While facilitators are on hand to ensure no one throws any punches, some of the men get terrifyingly close to each other. Yet their supportive group members help them to push past their violent responses to see what their real issues are.
There's a tremendous amount of empathy for these prisoners, especially after previously judgmental outsiders learn how much they have in common. Nearly all of them had terrible or non-existent fathers. Nearly all of them struggled with drug addiction. Nearly all of them lived in poverty. Nearly all of them joined gangs because they thought it would bring them the respect they craved. And nearly all of them regret the choices that led them to where they are today.
Many of these epiphanies are accompanied by animal-like howling. It clearly comes from a deep source of pain within these men, and seeing so much open weeping and wailing among the toughest of guys is disarming and devastating. But by about the third time a tatted-up murderer is grunting like Wolverine, that breakthrough loses a lot of its power for the audience. It doesn't feel disingenuous, but rather overdone. It's great that these guys are learning to handle their emotions, even if some of them will never be out of the literal prison they're in, but the big moment they discover the source of their emotional wounds doesn't always have to be shown as a primal revelation.
Still, The Work is an vital film worth seeing, especially for anyone who is struggling with or been a victim of violence. But it could have been a lot more powerful in concentrated form.