The Work (17, A-) – Originally completed 12/22/17

I’m back, folks! The original idea here was to post a review of the 100th 2017 film I’ve seen, which I’m remixing slightly for three reasons. One: The winner was Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a film I really struggled with and know I’ll see again soon, so I know I’ll have even clearer ideas about it later. Two: The “struggled with” part, since I feel like I haven’t gushed about something I’ve seen in a long while now. Three: Star Wars is only the 100th film because I failed to finish Jairus McLeary’s The Work before a shift at work, after which I saw Star Wars with the boyfriend. So, The Work is technically the 100th started, 101st finished, and deeply lodged in my top ten for the year. The 100th with certainly get its write-up someday soon, but I can easily swipe a rewatch before the end of the year, and The Work deserves and needs a voice far more than Star Wars does. As advocacy and personal preference, it wins by a country mile.

Victory itself is not part of The Work, or at least not in the sense of completion and overcoming an obstacle. Rather, the idea is in making the first steps towards self-actualization, in realizing what in your past has made you the man that you are now. Set inside a supermax prison, the film follows three men from outside the prison, one of dozens joining in a group retreat where men in and outside the facility participate in an intensive, four-day therapy program. A tradition spanning twenty years, in a facility that already holds a regular therapy program for the inmates, none of the outside men are especially confident that this will work for them. The sheer audaciousness of it was enough of a lure, but the three we follow don’t believe that they’re about to encounter a breakthrough in their psychoses, in working towards problems they’re aware of but don’t know how to tackle. We meet the entire collection of men once before the free men and prisoners split into smaller groups, one of whom we follow for the entirety of the film. Free men select two prisoners to guide them through the program. We’re briefly shown names of all the men, seeing their names, and either their careers or the criminal actions that landed them in jail. All of these men are appropriately forthcoming about what they did to be in prison, why they need this program, what they think they’re going to get out of it. The newcomers who have any expectations at all are hoping for some kind of enlightenment, yet all of them seem as though they’re muffling their expectations somehow, either in disbelief that the program will work for them or a refusal to get their hopes up. The veteran prisoners are aware of this, and seek to undo these diminished expectations by proving the value of the program, and bringing these men some kind of release.

It’s almost hard to articulate the reactions that the men in The Workrelease, even as the sight of them is massive, the release of emotions like a valve letting out steam with such force the pipe could break. These moments are not just emotional but physical, the men contorting their entire bodies and shoving against everyone else in their groups. They are held back, both as a physical embodiment to overcome and as a way to prevent anyone from getting hurt. Acknowledging their own pain is practically an exorcism for some of the newest members. One man, the only parent of the outsiders, is astonishingly empathetic towards the pain the prisoners express, while another cannot help but express his judgement until he is forced into exposing himself. The last man seems almost pointedly distant from the whole thing until, much to his surprise, he reaches a breakthrough of his own. The senior prisoners all serve as empathetic ears and consoling, encouraging voices to everyone who reveals their anxieties, relating their own experiences to the pain that someone else is feeling. Meanwhile, we hear the shouting and crashing from off-screen throughout the film, reminding us of the work being done outside of the select group we’re being allowed to watch. Everyone is experiencing their own painful breakthroughs and revelations, and hearing without seeing is a potent reminder of the stories going on that we aren’t privileged to gear No one is here to fuck around, and in handling such male-specific pains, their empathy remains a powerful force.

It’s the masculinity of these anxieties that gives the film and the session it depicts so much strength. All of the demons these men are facing are essentially rooted in how they are or aren’t fulfilling their ideas of what a man should be. One man is grappling with his inability to meet his own ridiculously high standards of how he should be treated by himself and others; One struggles with the abandonment he felt from his parents and his gang members; One is trying to become the parent his dad never was while another man contemplates suicide as his young son is kept away from him longer and longer. It’s about fathers and sons, and the ways that men are bound by societal expectations from being able to reckon with their emotions in such a basic, painful, genuinely stunting way. Even as the men try and downplay their feelings – why is being dismissed by my father giving me the pain of a man who never knew his dad? – their pain is treated with legitimacy and earnest care. Seeing these men shepherded through their revelations by men who’ve been in prison for decades is a powerful sight, watching former gang members and men from all stripes of life giving their most passionate and patient efforts to help bring their groups some kind of closure is an endlessly affecting sight.

By the end of the film, and in spite of their own strong skepticism, a number of the men in the circle have all been through some kind of reckoning. Senior prisoners remind them that these are only first steps, that continued therapy is necessary in order to truly come to terms with their emotions. It’s an emotionally overwhelming film that takes the time to remind the people in it that this a long, arduous, physically and psychically taxing process. It also reminds its participants that it’s so, so worth it, to be able to come to terms with the hurt you’ve been carrying for so long. If these senior inmates aren’t fully at peace, they’re aware of the pain they’re holding and have gained the tools to continue fighting it for years. In this day and in this culture it is so, impossibly rare to see an American film deconstruct toxic masculinity with such power and with so little judgement of the men it’s hurting the way that The Work so effectively does, over and over again. I don’t pretend to have written that well about what watching The Work felt like, and not just because of whatever quality I possess as a writer. It’s almost alien to see so many grown men baring their souls, and to do so with such exorcising force is something I’m not in a place to describe. But there’s so little in any film with as much value as the sight of these men wrestling with crisis of masculinity, and if this skimpy review hasn’t convinced you to see it, take a chance. A dossier on the anxieties and fears of grown men is hard to come by, and anything that delves into this topic so dexterously is more than worth anyone’s time and attention.

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