Movie Review: ‘The Work’: Electrifying Documentary About Deploying Men’s Work Healing in a Maximum Security Prison
Of all the film critics on Rotten Tomatoes writing about the documentary “The Work,” I’m the only one who has actually done the work (and facilitated the work) on display in this riveting documentary—and done it with three of the actual facilitators in the film.
Does that matter? Not really. But I’ve read the other reviews, and nobody really knows what they’re talking about, or seeing. They couldn’t possibly—not if they’re calling the work, “group therapy,” which is as true as it is meaningless; it belittles; it doesn’t begin to convey the scope of this type of healing work. And also not if they’re referring to “cons” with surprise that these are real, valid human beings, capable of deep change.
Now, I haven’t facilitated men’s work in the powder keg setting of a maximum security prison as it’s demonstrated here, but I’m here to tell you: Every men’s weekend that’s taken place, weekly, around the globe since the early 1980s is a powder keg of, if not equal, then similarly dangerous explosive potential.
Emotionally illiterate men everywhere, fatherless men everywhere, uninitiated men, mission-less men, and all combinations and permutations of those toxic ingredients are just inherently dangerous.
And on the flipside—all these components likewise render men ineffectual, drifting, worthless wretches. Modern society has long since lost its connection to, and understanding of—the sacred, mature-masculine.
Speaking of dangerous men, I’ve personally heard active-duty U.S. Navy SEALS describe their men’s weekends as being every bit as challenging and precision-executed as any SEAL-training process they’d experienced. I’ve witnessed Air Force spec-ops warriors exorcising demons they carried from having ordered bomb strikes that wiped out villages. I’ve seen the work of a professional boxer who killed a man in the ring. Men’s work is devastatingly powerful wherever it takes place.
But to publicly present, finally, “The Work,” about the healing work that happens on men’s weekends, there really is no better stage than legendary lockdown—Folsom State Prison. Johnny Cash put the darkness of Folsom in our national consciousness in 1955, and the documentary “The Work” is here over 60 years later to announce, from Folsom, the unbelievable light, heat, and power of Men’s Work to the world.
A Little Background
Back in the early 1980s, three men—an ex-Marine, a psychologist, and a teacher—got together and decided to address men’s issues in the wake of ’60s and ’70s emerging feminism.
How were men supposed to be, during these confusing times, where Yin is in ascension, and Yang in decline? Role-reversals were happening, it was all very confusing for men. And women.
Then the poet Robert Bly wrote the definitive men’s work bible, “Iron John,” and these three men—Rich Tosi, Bill Kauth, and Ron Hering—came up with the Wildman Weekend.
It immediately got ridiculed, the press had a field day—I mean, what is that? Men running around in the woods, naked? Smearing mud on themselves, howling at the moon, banging on drums, dealing with mommy and daddy issues?
The test-runs of the Wildman Weekends have long since evolved into the formidable New Warrior Training Adventure. You may have noticed that the concept of the warrior has become very popular in the last couple of decades. It started here. At least 70,000 men worldwide have done their weekends.
But because this is work exclusive to the needs of men, it was, up until now, not for public consumption; not to be lightly blathered about. To lose the element of surprise drains much of the power out of the weekend. There needed to be a time of circling the wagons; for men to realize and remember that down through the ages, only men can teach other men (and boys) how to be men. If you don’t have the proper plumbing, you can’t do this job. So has it ever been in tribal life, so shall it ever be, in order for healthy men (and by extension healthy communities) to thrive.
Men’s Work in Prison
That said, the work presented in “The Work” is being made public on the request of the prison inmates involved. When the prison warden at Folsom was shown the film, his jaw hit the ground, and he immediately laid out the red carpet for further men’s work.
He’d taken a giant gamble. He’d allowed the unprecedented, extremely dangerous situation to occur: a pack of convicted killers from different lethal gangs; Crips, Bloods, Skins (Native-American), White supremacists, Latin Kings, cartel-affiliated gangs, and so on, to be together in one room—unsupervised. No guards. And allowed them to participate in processes where the volume of their emotional states would be turned up to 11.
And there are explosions. Man-oh-man. It’s an actual adrenaline high. As Rick, a white-supremacist shot-caller (gang leader) and former outlaw-biker in “The Work” says, “I had a ’43 Shovelhead (Harley-Davidson). I’d take her up to 147 mph, till she started shaking. I lived for experiences on the edge. I don’t get to have those experiences in prison. But these men’s circles carry that energy.”
These men’s circles also carry the power to contain these explosions and exorcisms like a human bomb containment chamber. Let the healing begin.
Alright Already! So What the Heck Goes On in There?
Tough guys. To quote legendary fullback Jim Brown, “The first thing you find out when you get to the NFL is that tough guys come in all sizes. What the little guys lack in size and power, they more than make up for in accuracy and meanness.”
“The Work’s” camera pans over a classic, scary, prison line-up; level-four convicts with tats galore, bandanas, bad dudes swole from back-to-back life-sentences worth of heavy weight-lifting. Bonafide thug-life. Up close and personal.
These convicts are part of the Inside Circle Foundation, known on the prison yard as the Dragon Clan, a guarded brotherhood existing beneath the radar of the 360-degree predator watchfulness that is the de rigueur state of being, in prison.
These men want to do men’s work. They want to change. They’re weary to the bone, of being bad to the bone. Tired of the blood. They want to become good men. But everything in a maximum security prison is written in blood.
Which is why Director McLeary and co-director Gethin Aldous, after coming in contact with the Inside Circle Foundation in 2004, needed to work with them for a nearly a decade before making this documentary. Trust had to be seriously earned, as you can well imagine.
I’d been invited to staff an Inside Circle Foundation weekend, but never did. What I didn’t realize at the time, is that this is not just the inmates doing the work. There’s a small crew of regular, everyday men who go do their men’s weekend in the prison, as an alternative to doing a regular New Warrior Training Adventure.
And so the initiated convicts become teachers, guides, and mentors of the regular men; the intense hardship of their lives rendering them fast-tracked elders, to the soft men from the outside. But it’s by no means a one-sided exchange.
We’re led through the razor-wired gates, past prison personnel, down to the belly of the beast; a big room, where convicts and regular guys are circled up together, and taken through an African call-and-response ritual chant to establish unity. Ritual space is established, and it is into the ritual space of the sacred masculine, that the camera allows us access.
What Is the Actual Work of ‘The Work’?
What’s the main thing modern men are missing? The boyhood-to-manhood rite of passage. This is from a previous article I wrote on this topic:
“…in those tribes where becoming a man incorporated a do-or-die ordeal, such as the Masai tribe’s stipulation that a slender, 135-pound 16-year-old boy, kill an 800-pound adult male African lion with a thin spear, the mothers were truly distraught. Because they knew, one way or another, they’d never see their little boys again. Their sons would either return as powerful men with faces set in stone—or not return at all.”
The work of men’s weekends provides modern men with their manhood rite of passage. By definition that means facing an ordeal they don’t think they’ll be able to survive. This is a primal call for men, like salmon migrating upstream. The ordeal of childbirth is a built-in gateway ritual to the maturation of the female tribe. Men need an outer ritual guided by tribal warriors and elders. If there’s no cultural structure for this, what do we end up with? Gangs. And a world of disenfranchised men.
And there you have your answer about why some outwardly schlubby, inwardly soft, average joes got involved in this scary, prison-situated opportunity—to grow into men. What’s the call and desire and impetus for the hard men already inside the prison? To become good men.
The Cliff Notes version describing the New Warrior Training Adventure might read: One hundred men, from all walks of life—doctors, lawyers, farmers, ex-cons, bikers, military, construction workers, Hasidic rabbis—all races and religions—meet as strangers on a Friday evening, and by Sunday afternoon they’re all brothers. And not in a shallow “bromance” way, but in an archetypal, male, tribal, communal sense that hasn’t been experienced by men since the times when they were hunters, warriors, heroes, and elders in tribal life.
That’s the work. That’s men’s work in a nutshell. All modern men have work to do. Any men’s circle contains men who yearn for the sacred masculine, in order to become good men, and for some who hear the further call to Joseph Campbell’s proverbial “Hero’s Journey”—the dedication to a discipline of spiritual enlightenment.
There are four days worth of tried-and-true processes. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What do you burn for? Anything? Some men are numb.
Like Chris, a soft-spoken museum worker, afflicted with a bad case of Millennial whateverness. He sees the massive exorcisms going on left and right, around him, and confides on the bus to Folsom on day two: “I feel like they’re trying to break me; get me to cry. I didn’t come here looking to cry, and I don’t want to feel like I’m letting them down if I don’t.” Who can’t relate to that? Right? I chuckled and thought, “Wait till he gets to ‘Little Boy’s Deepest Needs.’”
On this weekend, there’s something that will address every last issue men hide, repress, and deny, in their lives, and sure enough, Chris gets the roof torn off the inner fort where he’s repressed the pain of a father who subtly but powerfully made him feel stupid and incapable. He didn’t know how much pain he was carrying. Men rarely do.
This is called “guts” work, and this could be, in many ways, designated as the essence, or the flagship process of men’s work. Role-play so powerful, with the theatrical fourth wall so firmly in place that the players (in this case work-ers) are so utterly transported as to be channeling.
On any men’s weekend, and especially in a maximum security prison—safety is paramount; an aspect inherited from the military. This is psychodrama at its most intense, with the word “psycho” being a clear and ever-present danger. Fortunately, the safety on men’s weekends is as powerful as any 280-pound NFL fullback-stopping defensive scrum, and can contain the raw rage, deep shame, and staggering grief that flows from opened wounds. Hence the bomb containment metaphor. The resulting healing is incandescent. It’s electrifying. And it fosters concentration so deep that the documentary camera might as well be filming A-list professional actors. Method acting is not acting, but being, and that’s what goes on here.
“The Work” focuses on three convicts and three civilians. Over the four days, every man takes a trip down the rabbit hole of his past, and removes the makeshift psychic bandages from the original wounds dealt by life. Wounds that have caused these men to metaphorically limp through life.
When the incarcerated men model the process, the free men see that the “safe container” of the room is indeed industrial strength, a veritable bomb containment chamber able to contain the rawest rage and the deepest sadness, it encourages them to explode out of their comfort zones and join in the healing.
Besides Chris, there’s Charles, a middle aged black man, maimed by fatherlessness. There’s Rick, the Aryan Brotherhood gang member, who’s tired of all the blood, and gentle Dark Cloud, the Skins gang member who’s in for 22 years on account of nearly cutting a man in half with a machete. A West Coast Crips shot-caller is doing 75 years.
Brian is a teacher’s assistant of what looks to be middle-eastern heritage. He’s got a Banty rooster-like need to act tough, which takes the form of knee-jerk judging of others, like he’s doing them a favor, imparting his harsh truth from on high. In a moment of humor, when Brian goes for a drink of water, the two veteran inmates he’s told his story to, look at each other knowingly and smile, “Looks like we’ve got a live one.”
“The Work” will challenge your view of who America’s prisoners really are. You will appreciate as never before the phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Perhaps the most powerful image is of two inmates, a Blood shot-caller calling out another former Blood gang member, who, from deep in his despair, has just let a thinly-veiled hint hang in the air, that he will soon commit suicide. In a warrior showdown that’ll stand your hair on end, the shot-caller says he won’t stand for any quitting of life on his watch, and implores his brother to hang on for 90 days. When the hopeless man acquiesces, their ensuing bear-hug gives way to what sounds like post-production sound engineering: you hear highly accelerated heart-beats that slow down with the new peace of comforting words. You think “Ah, that’s a nice touch,” and then realize the hug unintentionally slammed their microphones into their chests, which picked up their actual heartbeats. It’s magical film-making.
Since the film was made approximately ten years ago, the gang that’s been in the news non-stop lately, MS-13, is missing here. As the saying goes in men’s work, “All men need this work.”
Bill Cosby needs the work. Harvey Weinstein needs the work. O.J. Simpson needs the work. Kevin Spacey needs the work. MS-13 are known rapists. They need the work.
Due to the transformative power of the work, inmates previously carrying double life sentences and the like, are being released back into society. With no recidivism whatsoever. I repeat: 100 percent no recidivism.
“The Work” is a monumental achievement. It will rivet your attention for every one of its 87 minutes.
Film Review: ‘The Work’
Director: Jairus McLeary; Co-director: Gethin Aldous
Running Time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 29
Rated 5 stars out of 5