MIFF Review: The Work

Ever thought about doing group therapy? How about group therapy inside a maximum security prison with convicted murderers?

Well, it turns out you can. At Folsom State Prison in California, where the inmates engage in group therapy sessions, the gates are opened twice a year to let the general public participate in a four-day group-therapy retreat with the prisoners.

To say what goes down when filmmakers Gethin Aldous and Jairus McLeary follow three men inside who sign up for the retreat is intense, would be an understatement.

The inmates may be hardened criminals, some of whom have wilfully taken lives in the past, but when it comes to group therapy, they are old hands. Dispensing with the race-based factions with which they exist inside the prison, the inmates break into small groups and waste no time in cutting through to the truth, they know how to access their demons, and zero in on the source of their pain. They also know how to help their fellow inmates tap into the same areas.

The first of the three civilians to get into the swing of things is not so far removed from this milieu. He’s the last in a long line of men who have lived without their father, his having spent many years in prison. Absent or unloving fathers is a motif that comes up again and again.

Much more of a puzzle is the second civilian. His reason for being here is harder to define, although the prisoners who have a warm-up chat with him quite rightly claim to themselves that they have ‘a real live wire’ on their hands. In therapy he astoundingly calls out some of the prisoners who have opened their hearts, accusing them of faking it or not trying hard enough. Just as astounding is how quickly he falls apart once his own character is put under the spotlight.

Then there’s quiet, little Chris. At the start he says to his fellow civilians that he feels like everybody’s supposed to break down and cry and he hopes they’re not disappointed when he doesn’t do that. Famous last words.

When Chris, our audience surrogate, is finally stretched to breaking point, it is the film’s emotional highpoint. He may not have the most heartbreaking story in the room, and he feels embarrassed even mentioning it with so much large-scale pain, anger and bitterness around him, but nevertheless, it’s something that has been lodged inside him for years, and we see the full force of the group prying it out of him, possibly for good.

There’s no room to hide in The Work, and McLeary’s decade-plus experience as a participant in the sessions goes some way to explaining what a remarkable job he does of being right there in the thick of it without ever appearing to get in the way or even being noticed. Arturo Santamaria’s camera is close enough to catch every tear trailing down the faces of the anguished men, while screams from neighbouring groups often rip through the intense exchanges.

Undeniably claustrophobic and ultimately cathartic, The Work will have you wishing you could book in for another session.  

✭✭✭✭1/2

The Work is currently screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival

Richard Leathem @dickiegee