The Work Review Image

SXSW Review: The Work

Score: B-

Directors: Gethin Aldous, Jairus Mcleary

Running Time: 87 Minutes

Rated: NR

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.

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About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.

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