If you don’t know the name Fran Kranz, you soon will. While this actor has a healthy resume, it’s his sharp eye for story telling that most assuredly will catapult this first-time writer and director into the stratosphere with his writing and directorial debut of Mass starring Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, and Reed Birney. With a keen ear for dialogue, a skilled eye, and deft direction of this passionate ensemble cast, the result is one of the most harrowingly complex and captivating films in recent memory.
Mass lures us into the comfortable, familiar setting of a midwestern church yet there’s an unsettling feeling which permeates the atmosphere. The young, well-meaning church employees awkwardly set up a room, readying it for the meeting that will soon occur. A no-nonsense woman arrives (Michelle N. Carter) who judgingly assesses the well-intentioned yet incompetent staff’s preparations. As the two couples arrive, the simple pleasantries begin, but the undertone is unsuccessfully covering the rumblings of the unimaginable.
Slowly, the camera circles the group, capturing the emotions like a shark encircling its victim. Tempers rise and fall, all of the characters trying to keep their emotions in check, but eventually, each of them allows their true feelings to show. It’s a paradigm of what our world in the United States has grown to expect nearly on a daily basis, but narrowly focused upon two sets of individuals…the horrors of a mass shooting in a school.
The meeting, arranged perhaps as a way for each set of parents to talk, learn, and heal from both of their losses paired with guilt and accusations, amplifies in intensity minute by minute. One couple wrestles with anger and how it has impacted their memories, their surviving daughter’s future, and their future as a couple. The other is haunted by the demons of remorse. Could they have done anything more? Could they have read the signs better? Could they have prevented this tragedy? The brutally raw, honest, and gut wrenching scenes take your breath away as you feel privy to a private conversation, understanding both sides of the coin, to see it more clearly.
Kranz doesn’t give us the complete picture at first. He wants us to question what we are hearing and seeing. He wants us to wonder what’s about to happen and why. We know there has been a loss, but who and how is put into question. Kranz pushes us to think, to ponder about the possibilities which in effect places us perhaps not in these parents’ shoes, but at least allows us to walk along side of them to have more than sympathy for each of them.
To do this is a task requiring succinct writing that feels natural and at the same time retains the elements of guardedness, tempered anger, and sorrow while each character attempts to be civil to the other. The writing also accesses and portrays what might be an amalgam of parents who have sat in those seats and said or thought those very words and feelings. While plenty of other films like We Need to Talk About Kevin or Hello Herman, address the viewpoint of those the shooter left behind, never have we been allowed into the realm of reality from both points of view. This unique dual perspective coupled with the talent of the cast sets this film high above any others.
The cast is simply extraordinary in very ordinary ways. From the moment we “meet” each of them, we believe they are a representation of a real set of parents, both traumatized by the event but in different ways. Plimpton and Isaacs portray Gail and Jay, the couple who are still grieving yet attempting to move through and perhaps find a way to heal, but their anger and resentment toward Linda (Dowd) and Richard (Birney), palpable, is standing in the way. Plimpton and Isaacs portray a typical midwestern couple; down to earth, honest, but dealing with one of the most harrowing situations a parent could ever imagine. Their connection is lost or at least unraveling as they grasp at coming to terms with what Linda and Richard say and how they respond. Birney’s measured portrayal of the father of the shooter shows us the great wall he has built—his way of coping and attempting to move forward and live. But has he been living? Dowd is exceptional and embodies any character she takes on and this is no exception to that rule. Her performance is crushingly riveting, quaking with the discomfort of her own thoughts and eventual admissions. It’s impossible to avert your gaze, worried that you could miss a slight gesture, facial tick, blink or movement that will augment your understanding of the characters.
Directing this ensemble cast, no matter the skill level, is a feat that a first-time director typically could never accomplish, but Kranz does so with apparent ease. The overlapping dialogue, responses both verbal and non-verbal, find their way into the scene as the camera captures the right angles and expressions. Feeling much like a well-choreographed dance, Kranz expertly brings his mind’s eye to the scene and we see his vision of this story a it unfolds. We, the viewers, are a part of the conversation, our tongues held as the information spews forth pointedly and intentionally.
The rhythmic ebb and flow of the story finding the amplitude more of a tidal wave than anything, concludes, eliciting a heavy exhale. It’s an emotionally cathartic breath that releases, giving us a sense of empathy without having to experience such a grave tragedy as it ever so gently touches upon a social issue that appears to have no resolution.