Film Review – Mass
It’s an impossible conversation – one that no parent should ever have to go through. Two couples meet in a church hall to discuss their worst nightmares: the death of their children. To make matters worse: one couple are the parents of a victim of a school shooting, the other are the parents of the shooter. Fran Kranz’s writing and directorial debut, Mass (2021) is a devastating look at a problem that has been plaguing this country for decades. It examines, with raw power, at the lingering effects that come from an act of violence involving high school teens. This is not an easy film to watch, but it is important and necessary that it exists.
What’s striking is how the set up feels like a theatrical play. Set almost entirely inside of the church hall, the environment is sparse and simple with a table, a few chairs, and plain white walls. On one side of the room are food and drinks, although we gather that they won’t be consumed. On the other side is a tissue box, foreshadowing the emotional rollercoaster we are about to embark. The narrative is dialogue driven, with much of the action involving the characters sitting across from each other. This almost seems like a workshop, with the production smoothing out the rough edges before getting picked up for some off-Broadway run. But this is an original concept by Kranz, who keeps us anchored in this room from beginning to end.
Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail’s (Martha Plimpton) son was killed by a depressed and disturbed classmate. Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney) are parents of the killer. Jay and Gail invite Linda and Richard to meet at the church in hopes of finding closure before they can move on. The four agree to not be confrontational or turn things into an interrogation, but of course that plan doesn’t work out as it should. Right away, we sense that they are sidestepping, holding back what they really think. Gail barely holds in her anger when they meet, trying not to burst at the seams.
Early pleasantries and soft politeness turn sour as the group talk about everything that led up to their meeting. They speak plainly about their children’s upbringings, their involvement with school, the hints and clues that led up to the attack, and the agonizing step by step account of that faithful day. It is a back and forth of questions, accusations, and deflections. Jay and Gail demand to find some reason for what happened – whether something could have been done to prevent this tragedy from occurring. Linda and Richard admit they failed their son. They insist that they are good people, that they did everything in their means to help him, and that they feel not only the pain of losing their son, but the guilt from the victim’s families, all of whom look at them in disdain.
All four actors deliver tour de force performances. Each of them navigates around land mines of trigger words and phrases. The try to show compassion and empathy in a place full of heartbreak. Jason Isaacs’ Jay is a father and husband who is hanging by a thread, barely managing to stay strong for his family. He tries to calm Gail when her frustrations spill out, but he too can’t hold himself together when the answers he wants are not there. Martha Plimpton gives Gail an underlying tension – she knows what they are supposed to say and how to act but can’t keep her feelings in check. Ann Dowd’s Linda exudes warmth, trying to show the humanity of her son despite no one wanting to see it. She understands the enormity of his actions and is lost between her love for him and the shock over what he had done. Reed Birney’s Richard might be the most complex of them all. He spends a lot of time deflecting blame, saying that he cannot admit that any one thing is solely responsible. He accepts the fact that, while the entire world mourns the death of 10 people, he and Linda must quietly mourn 11.
And that is the real tragedy, not only of the film but of gun violence in this country. In the aftermath of a shooting, we always to try to pinpoint a single reason for it. Is it parenting? Bullying? Peer pressure? Education? Video games? The internet? Are killers born that way, or are they bred to become one? What is the balance between Nature and Nurture? The answer, sadly, is not black and white. It could be a combination of all those factors, or it could be something else entirely. As the rest of the world moves on, Jay, Gail, Linda, and Richard must live with these unanswered questions. All they know was that a young man was in desperate pain and was unable to express those feelings other than the worst possible way. At certain points, Kranz (with editor Yang Hua Hu) cuts away from the conversation to focus on a single pink ribbon dangling on a fence outside of the high school – a solemn reminder of how common these events have now become.
Although the film operates like a stage play, Kranz does have room to add in cinematic touches. In the first act, Ryan Jackson-Healy’s camera remains static, stuck firmly to the ground and shooting the room with static, symmetrical angles. It’s as though the camera doesn’t want to disturb the stillness of the opening scenes. As the talk turns desperate and emotionally charged, the visuals discreetly turn handheld, opting for closeup shots to amplify the turmoil the characters are going through. When we finally leave the room, all the pent-up tension dissipates, like a pressure valve being released.
The title of Mass operates in two ways. There is the “mass” of a church service, and the “mass” of a mass murder. Kranz tries to find some catharsis out of the sadness. He deliberately avoids giving a direct answer – the debate of gun control is skipped completely. Instead, he brings us in simply as a listener, a person that these characters can divulge their thoughts upon. When the lights turn off and the cameras disappear, they continue carrying that pain for the rest of their lives. Kranz asks us, if only for a short time, to walk with them.