Jairus McLeary’s The Work dramatizes the violence of the American male psyche with a sense of physicality and passion that’s rare in cinema, recalling the confessional intensity of Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason. Set in one room in Northern California’s Folsom Prison over four days, the documentary follows hardened inmates as they interact with outsiders and engage in an intense and intimate kind of therapy session. The men plumb deep and internal recesses of bitterness and heartache, raging and crying, allowing themselves to be exposed in a setting that normally encourages guardedness, mistrust, and primordial violence. As a Native American inmate, Dark Cloud, says, “I want to be vulnerable and I don’t want to be scared to be vulnerable.”
The physical contrast between the civilians and the inmates offers a found commentary on American masculinity that’s exploded by the group sessions. The civilians are quiet, soft-looking, and understandably intimidated by their Folsom compatriots. Meanwhile, the inmates are the living and breathing stereotypes of the outlaw badass: muscled, tatted up, swathed in bandannas and jewelry, and ineffably “hard” in a manner that only decades’ worth of incarceration can presumably engender. If The Work’s touchy-feely platitudes were uttered by a psychiatrist, and they have been many times, they’d have considerably less effect, but in this setting they’re imbued with an element of danger, investing self-help with an unusual degree of macho credibility.
It’s freeing and intoxicating to watch these tough guys cry, as they’re validating the fragility of men who feel they’re not living up to the American male ideal. An irony stares American men in the face: We’re united in aloneness, in our certainty that we’re failing a vague code of conduct—even and perhaps especially “man’s men.” This realization underlines an ugly tenant of American culture, which encourages men to evaluate their worth in terms of fealty to both capitalism and a lingering alpha fantasy of the stud fornicator, hunter, and dominator that our culture shames and reveres in equal measure. It seems as if an American man can only be a pig or a pussy, and that reductive duality begets a systemic inferiority complex.
Doing “the work,” these men dredge up a subterranean self-loathing. And the similarities between the men’s stories of regret and anguish are inescapable. Everyone in The Work is plagued by absent or disapproving fathers who sent them an implicit message early in their lives: that they’re lesser in a way that cannot be defined or transcended. For the criminals, this complex is later expressed with violence; for the civilians, it’s manifested as a crippling uncertainty that leads to sleepwalking through life as a spectator.
So it’s liberating to get in a circle and face one’s demons—to have an alpha urge you to conjure your inner lost child, even for the audience vicariously watching the film. McLeary allows the sessions to speak for themselves, effacing his own presence as much as possible, which is admirable as well as dubious. Allowing us the illusion of sitting in on these sessions, The Work often lingers on facial close-ups and focuses entirely on a succession of climaxes. But the invisibility of the filmmaking process also casts an element of doubt on the men’s responses. Brian Nazarof, a teacher’s assistant who presents himself as a class clown only to immediately channel rage and sadness at the “disrespect” that he feels everyone accords him, occasionally looks into the camera. One may wonder if these arias of despair are pieces of performance art. Though isn’t therapy a kind of performance art anyway?
McLeary’s refusal to morally editorialize unearths other complications. Many of his subjects are killers. In one of the film’s most unnerving moments, Dark Cloud says that he nearly cut someone in half with a long knife, and many inmates are former members of the Aryan Brotherhood, the Bloods, and other infamous gangs. Vegas, a former shot caller for the Bloods, is one of the film’s most charismatic subjects, talking a despairing father, Dante, down from thoughts of suicide. When Vegas and Dante hug, their microphones muffle their words and emphasize their beating hearts. This is a profound scene, but this sentimentality is diminished somewhat by the film’s backgrounding of the criminals’ pasts. The Work might’ve been more challenging and resonant if it had forced the audience to reconcile the damage the inmates have done on the outside with the neuroses that spark said damage. (One may also wonder if the inmates resume their racial and cultural rivalries when the sessions end; it’s implied that they do, and this distinction is important, though these rivalries may also be practically necessary to survival.)
McLeary declines to broach another irony in his commitment to total immersion: how the men’s therapy is itself rooted in violence and traditional masculinity. To cry with one’s head up is to “cry like a man,” which oxymoronically embraces both progressive and regressive attitudes. When Brian and Dark Cloud reach the abyss of their respective despair, they’re encouraged to enter a group huddle in which they rage against their literal and figurative cages, initiating a ritualized fight with the other men.
Yet the film is searing and moving for its embrace of its own imperfections, for its willingness to value emotion over intellectualized conjecture, offering what amounts to catharsis in a bottle. McLeary honors the irrationality of neuroses. Many American men are terrified of the connection for which they yearn, feeling that they’re unworthy of it, and it’s a tragedy that we must so often code our connections in even insidious forms of violence, such as the way that even genial men might punctuate a hug with insecure punching of their partner’s back. Violence might be the only common language of a mercenary society, a way of allowing men to feel that they don’t have anything to prove. This violence is The Work’s subject. In its visceral purity, the film drags male toxicity up into the light, offering it as a cure for itself.