3.5 out of 5 stars

The ironic modesty of Fran Kranz’s (The Cabin in the Woods) directorial debut feature, Mass, is that for a movie with such an earnest, harrowing grasp on the subject of mass school shootings in America, its scope—limited to an extended real-time discussion between four characters in a single room—is so immensely truncated and theatrical you’d think it was a covert adaptation of a prospective Pulitzer Finalist for Drama. Yet, based on the sheer sensitivity of said subject matter, it feels like the only real way to deal with the devastation such tragedies leave behind in a nuanced, genuinely respectful manner. We’ve seen films that depict these kinds of horrific events in detail, for better or for worse—take Gus Van Sant’s Palme D’Or-winning Elephant (2003), Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux (2018), or Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique (2009)—but rarer are films that focus on what comes after, with the seemingly insurmountable grief and anger that follow such traumatic events.

Which is particularly what makes Mass, as simple and sterile-to-a-fault as it may be in terms of visual construction, such a genuinely necessary film to witness. (And it’s worth congratulating the film’s marketing team for not gratuitously banking on that importance like most other “cinematic event of the year” campaigns.) This is a quintessentially American drama; one that carries the formidably admirable intention of turning discussions about mass school shootings away from the desensitising, graphic details of the tragedies themselves and toward their awful human cost. The deep scars they leave behind on individual and collective psyches, and the lifetime of healing and forgiveness they end up asking out of people. And with Kranz’s surprisingly noteworthy command over a phenomenal troupe of four actors, Mass delivers exactly what it needs to get that intention across, even if it never seems like it escapes the theatrical constraints of its own story.

The first 11-minutes or so of Mass aren’t necessarily about the parents at this film’s centrepiece. Rather, they’re dedicated to the setup that comes before their meeting at a local Episcopalian church, an effort spearheaded by church employees Judy (Breeda Wool) and Anthony (Kagen Albright), as well as social worker Kendra (Michelle N. Carter) as they fumble their way through the most minute details of the meeting’s designated room—from the position of the circular table their guests are meant to sit at, to the cross on the wall, and all the way to the schoolchildren’s “stained glass” projects hung up on the windows. It feels like it extends for far too long (enough for it to meander from the real story at hand), but the buildup is at least an intriguing touch, potentially bringing an element of misdirection through its more mildly comedic bent but also establishing an air of genuine suspense. What exactly is going to happen in this room that demands such rigorous attention to detail?

Even as the two couples of this film’s story arrive to the church—Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton), and Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney)—that question isn’t concretely answered for a while. But judging from the cold tension in the room, the audience is likely to garner bits and pieces of their gathering’s true nature, from the way their conversation about a flowerpot starts off with an intense degree of awkwardness, to how, when Jay and Gail offer up photos of their son as a young boy, Linda stares at them lovingly before suddenly bursting into tears—a reaction that causes Gail to snatch them from her hands with a single sharp motion. Mentions of activism and the politics of gun control pop up in relation to Jay and Gail, Linda and Richard’s mentioning of their son as well as his childhood, becomes a significant source of contention between the two, and Jay and Gail seem to have been advised by their therapist to not vindictively interrogate Linda and Richard during their conversation here.

Eventually, Gail gets Linda and Richard’s attention with a deceptively simple request—“Tell me about your son”—a statement that, when sternly prompted “Why?” by Richard, she immediately follows up with a sentence that bluntly clicks everything into place: “because he killed mine.” It doesn’t take long from there for Mass to reveal what’s really at stake; during a school shooting several years prior, Linda and Richard’s son, Hayden, was the shooter who killed, among others, Jay and Gail’s son, Evan. Their meeting here isn’t the first; they’ve spoken before, albeit on nominally less amicable terms. And they’re here now to reach some sense of closure in one way or another, even if their path to it is lined with impossibly hard lessons about forgiveness, acceptance, and regret.

Once the film reaches the meat of their discussion, Kranz’s script becomes lined with numerous clever flourishes that not only make it easier for his four leads to exhibit their full range of talents, but also serve the narrative with a sincere sense of delicacy and nuance. First among them, and perhaps most obvious, is the distinct approaches to confronting both the situation and each other that each of these characters exhibit over the course of the film, many of which hide a whole array of seemingly contradictory dimensions that slowly reveal themselves over time.

Linda and Richard are perhaps the two characters here with some of the more indecipherable approaches out of the four present. With Linda, Ann Dowd seems to make her initially come off as overbearingly (and perhaps suspiciously) reconciliatory and forgiving, while Reed Birney’s portrayal of Richard appears nominally less likeable at first for his defensive attitude in trying to explain away the behaviours leading up to their son’s horrific crime—a viewpoint whose reasons become surprisingly clearer by the moment as the four’s conversation further intensifies.

On the other hand, Martha Plimpton imbues an air of constant tension in Gail; a character who seems like she’s both constantly stewing in repression yet also exhausted by the intensity of the grief and anger she’s evidently holding back. And it’s Jay, brought to searing life by a genuinely impressive Jason Isaacs, who willingly tries to find common ground at first, but as tensions amplify between the two couples, he gradually begins to unfurl the chasmic depth of the pain and indignant fury he’s hidden ever since the loss of their son. It’s difficult to understate just how brilliant all four of these actors are here, as each of them clearly exhibit a passionate, full understanding of just how much of this film’s success and emotional resonance depended on them bringing their absolute best to the table.

Worth mentioning, too, is how the content of their discussion is both phrased and structured. The bulk of Mass‘s first half—or at the very least, the first half of the two couples’ conversation—finds itself revolving around Jay and Gail wanting to know more about Hayden, a desperate bid to understand what kinds of signs he exhibited that led to him carrying out the mass shooting, and perhaps an attempt to assign some semblance of blame. It’s an extensive back-and-forth of questions and answers, none of which ultimately come up with any satisfactory conclusions. Even as the violent video games Hayden played or his visits to the local gun range are mentioned in association, Linda and Richard are the first to admit that if they were indicators of homicidal tendencies, neither of them realised it well enough to properly act on them—something that Jay and Gail take as signs of neglect and irresponsibility, frustrated that this path of their conversation isn’t bringing them any closure in the way they expected.

But the disquieting escalation of this first half leads to a sincerely harrowing monologue in the middle that cracks the film in two, both narratively and visually, as the film takes on a wider aspect ratio and handheld camera movements—a split-second of uninhibited rawness that, as difficult as it is to confront, sets all four people present on some kind of path to forgiveness. Kranz’s script is clearly at least some type of representation for the way discussions of school shootings tend to be handled in America, what with both the problem and the solution being assigned a myriad of frustratingly contradictory labels (yes, the agonisingly obvious answer here is to regulate and reduce firearms), a futile effort that never gets any progress done to stop these horrendous tragedies and, what Kranz seems to have prioritized as his main concern here, utterly neglects the victims left behind. And while the script might indulge a tad too much time into the four’s investigation of Hayden’s psychological profile—enough for one to think that it’s certainly made its point earlier on, at least—t’s a necessary component to include in a story like this, especially since it ends up paving the way to something far more humane and considerate.

Yet, for all of these plainly obvious strengths in writing and performance, there are very few tricks Mass employs visually to fully justify it being a film. That’s not to say it’s without any at all; Kranz and cinematographer Ryan Jackson-Healy’s usage of close-ups and wider shots including one or more of the couples in the frame are decisive and measured enough to draw emphasis on emotions, faces, and reactions without anything flashy, and as mentioned above, there’s a significant format change right at the middle of the film that complements a major tonal change. But the foundations of its story make it hard for any of its rather sterile visual techniques to really push it beyond its more theatrical inclinations and the restrictions that come with them—a tricky situation, since every specific detail of how Kranz writes this more restrained-in-scope narrative is so integral to how the film portrays forgiveness in such a difficult context.

Even as there are some mild problems to be had with its pacing and overall usage of the medium, however, it goes without saying that Mass‘s human focus on the aftermath of school shootings is evidently important without being self-serious—an ever-rarer breed of dramatic cinema that’s rather satisfying to come across in a market oversaturated with films that touch on weighty subjects with inconsiderate bravado. And as intense of a watch Mass can be at points, with its painstakingly real depictions of grief’s veritable tornado of volatile emotions, it is also a film with an immense amount of faith and hope in our capacity to forgive: the one thing which might make it genuinely rewarding for viewers who’ve grown tired of the bleak misery associated with films of this kind, and the stagnantly sluggish trudge towards progress that reality is ceaselessly hammering us over the head with.

“You say you want to heal, we all do,” Linda says early on before earnestly asking, “Is this how?” As Mass reaches its conclusion, it’s clear that it’s not just Linda asking everyone else in the room that question—it’s also a question that Kranz is posing to the audience, one that he leaves with an acknowledgement that the answer is both far more simple and complicated than anyone could possibly expect.

USA | 2021 | 111 MINUTES | 2.00:1 • 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Fran Kranz.
starring: Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd & Reed Birney.