MASS Channels Unspeakable Tragedy into Cathartic Confrontations

Four of the year’s best performances drive this visceral interrogation of grief and loss

A conference room — stale, plastic tables and chairs, near-identity-less save for the huge crucifix adorning the wall — slowly transforms into a mediation room, a prison cell, a therapist’s office, and ultimately a means of deliverance for two grieving sets of parents in Fran Kranz’s debut film Mass. Six years after the school tragedy that claimed both their sons’ lives, Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs) have trekked to a small town church at the behest of their legal team to work out their grievances against Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd). The methods of mediation are photos and items belonging to their children. Otherwise, the parents are tucked away in the back meeting room of a local church, with other church workers (Breeda Wool, Kagen Albright) or even their own legal representative forbidden to enter until the four decide to leave of their own volition. This meeting could take minutes. It could take hours. But as their mediator Kendra (Michelle N. Carter) notes, this long-brewing confrontation is essential to the process.

Even before the quartet of parents enters this room, Mass’s tension is crushingly wire-taut. Kendra methodically removes or alters anything that could provoke a negative reaction from the parents, without giving away to us the exact nature of why these parents are finally meeting face-to-face. No food; it’s not essential. Tissues are placed on a bookshelf, it’d be “freaky” to have it waiting in the center of the table. The four chairs are placed with two couples facing each other than one at each compass point, allying 2 against 2 rather than a free-for-all confrontation. On the way, Gail and Jay pull over on the side of the road, unable to move forward. To Gail, the Church seems almost like a black hole. And after entering, she keeps herself at arm’s length from the other parents until their reason for meeting is finally coaxed out.

That school tragedy, six years ago? Gail and Jay’s son was one of many killed by Richard and Linda’s son before he turned the gun on himself.

In the moments leading up to the first of Mass’s shocking revelations, writer-director Kranz quickly does away with the charged political elements borne of the mass gun violence that provides the film’s catalyst through the parents’ cross-examination of their individual responses to their sons’ deaths. Each editorial cut feels like it’s by a serrated knife, whipping the camera’s razor-sharp focus on each provoked jab or stonewalled defense, each micro-expression of the ensemble utilized to dramatic effect without feeling telegraphed or rehearsed. Gail has joined Jay in a very public and uphill battle against gun violence, one that’s taken as much of a Sisyphean emotional toll as losing their son in the first place. Richard and Linda, at the urging of their legal team, have wholly stayed out of the spotlight, refusing to take a public position on their son’s actions, motivations, or mental health. Richard, however, is quick to take a pro-Second Amendment stance, unwavering in his focus from a drive for greater mental health care. It’s a vital debate, one that continues to rage with unabated vitriol outside the church walls, but Kranz addresses this elephant in the room so that it can quickly be removed from it. While Gail, Jay, Richard, and Linda each have their own stance in that particular debate, that isn’t what draws them here. Rather, Kranz’s focus is on the immediate, tangible reasons for bringing these parents together.

A primal, urgent need for victims to understand the reasons why their perpetrator acted, and what — if anything — can be done as retribution.

With its one-room setting for the greater duration of Mass’s two hours, it’s easy to make the case for this to be a compelling one-act play rather than a film. But Kranz and his cast are keenly aware that this is a film wholly about perspectives that are immoveable or malleable, and the agonizing attempts to justify and destroy each other’s in order to make sense of a senseless world. A stage can’t capture each defensive gesture or body language plea for commiseration or understanding at such a remove. Nor can theater capture the claustrophobia that the sparse setting metastasizes the longer their session draws on, as decorum crumbles in the face of sharper jabs and barely-suppressed urges at physical conflict. Kranz’s extensive career as an actor has surely honed his ambitious and assured direction here, using his control behind the camera to mine his actors’ performances for their maximum potency while ensuring the steady pace of Mass never flags or brushes past vital, impactful moments.

While Kranz may be the one capturing these soul-crushing sequences, the laurels for each certainly belong to the daunting power of his ensemble. Each of these veteran actors turns in a career-best performance, and all are given their own key turning points to demonstrate their incredible range. Jason Isaacs’ Jay channels his palpable anger and frustration into brute force, spearheading his grief into a movement to change the gun laws that could’ve prevented his son’s death. For Jay to give up now would risk robbing the loss of his son of any consequence as tangible as his death. As a counterpoint, Reed Birney’s Richard has spent the same years at a deliberate analytical remove, scanning his whole history as a father to bolster what actions he tried to take to prevent this tragedy and justify what actions he didn’t — or couldn’t. Both men feel like impotent generals on opposite sides of a battlefield, obsessed by their failures and shortcomings and equally unable to enact the change they seek in the world.

The ones who do cause Mass’s overwhelming sense of grief and, eventually, cathartic release, are the powerhouse performances of Martha Plimpton and Ann Dowd. Each of our parents struggles with how to process their grief, and in the film’s most crushing insight, even with the conceived value of each other’s relative loss. Both Dowd’s Linda and Plimpton’s Gail bear the scars of their robbed motherhood as if they were deep scabs constantly picked open by private conflict or public scrutiny. Gail struggles to make sense of what minutiae could’ve kept her son alive, and alongside Jay she forces Richard and Linda to recount their son’s journey from withdrawn, quiet child to the teenager who killed eighteen others. The journey conversely forces Linda to retread a path she’s undoubtedly wandered over sleepless nights, as a mother searching for any missed sign of her son’s descent into darkness. The love each mother has for their departed son is moving, valid, and real, which makes their husbands’ continued ideological sparring feel like a distracting diversion from the trauma they desperately want closure for. Both Dowd and Plimpton effortlessly meld irreconcilable emotions of grief, anger, and love into the conflicted maternal energy that drives them, and continuously ground Mass from spinning off into tangential debates on collective societal responsibility or the performative nature of public calls for action.

This is my one sticking point with Mass, however. While the film grounds its heady and ashamedly perpetually timely subject matter in the immediate experiences of its characters rather than re-hash the larger ideological debates that dominate the headlines, it treats these approaches as mutually exclusive. What’s more, that one debate actively takes away from the ability of the other to be had. Kranz’s decision is an impossible one, and the approach he’s decided to take is not just understandable, it’s admirable and ambitious. My issue is with how it runs the risk of robbing these debates of the value they undoubtedly have. If not for these characters’ sons, then for generations of schoolchildren to come who will fall victim to mass shootings if larger action isn’t taken. Mass is still an astonishingly moving film about the nature of loss and finding sense out of senseless actions. I just wish it didn’t feel compelled to sidestep these issues to find the resolution it seeks.

Regardless, the ending Mass comes to is no less cathartic. Even more impressive is how Kranz manages to come to near-equal catharsis for each of his individually-defined characters. Mass is a film of harsh truths, visceral emotions, and anguished action: one that manages to unearth redemption and forgiveness from the void of tragedy and hate.

Mass opens in theaters on October 8th from Bleecker Street Media.

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