Somber chamber drama Mass, actor Fran Kranz’s writing and directing debut about two sets of parents dealing and confronting each other after the loss of their sons in a mass shooting is a very tough watch. It teeters at the edge but never crosses the border into grief porn, and that’s to the credit of the ensemble cast and a well-crafted story arc in the screenplay. These are extraordinary performances, and they guide the audience through the experience of loss from four unique points of view, through both what is said and what is left unsaid.
For fully the first half hour, we are part of the minutia of bringing these couples together. Nervous nelly Judy (Breeda Wool) is setting up a single table in the basement of the church she runs. The audience isn’t privy to the event, but we know the snacks for it won’t be wanted, and the children’s art that adorns the windows might be a distraction. Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs) arrive, meeting Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney). The four are left alone, and the proceedings start occurring in real time. Before they meet Gail tells Jay, “I don’t think I can say it”. We only learn what ‘it’ is in the final minutes of the film.
We quickly discover that Gail and Jay’s son Evan was killed when Linda and Richard’s son Hayden committed a mass shooting in their school. Hayden dies in the shooting as well. These characters slowly and variously expose the pain of their loss, their anger, confusion, guilt, and shame to one another and to themselves. There are arcs in the discussion that heighten the tension and conflict between the couples as well as moments of understanding and compassion. All four actors offer such layered performances that the movie begs repeated viewing to discover new nuances, even as the subject matter and script make that idea feel decidedly masochistic.
Kranz, who was a new father at the time, was compelled to write Mass after watching the aftermath of Parkland. He did years of research on mass shootings, on the Forgiveness Project, and The Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa. Though the name Mass has multiple meanings, Kranz was interested in the definition of it as the assembling of bodies or the gathering of people, and wanting to give consideration to the power of human connection.
As part of the genius of their performances, Plimpton, Isaacs, Dowd, and Birney handle a shifting landscape of holding on and letting go, often in minute increments, giving each other focus and holding space for each other in what must have been a very fragile, vulnerable experience as actors and as people. It’s rare to see a film where individual and ensemble performances are given equal weight and importance. There must have been an enormous amount of respect in the cast and crew. That weight and respect is to the credit of Kranz as writer/director. There’s no fun at all to be had in watching Mass and it is definitely overlong, but it is a showcase for a cast that will unquestionably be considered next awards season, and heralds a new voice at the writer’s desk and behind the camera for Fran Kranz.
4 out of 5 stars.