“Mass” has generated a ton of well-deserved buzz following its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Writer-director Fran Kranz makes his feature film debut with this crushing close-to-home drama about two couples still coping with the loss of their sons years after a deadly school shooting. The film is driven by Kranz’s masterful script and four powerhouse performances. The material is heavy, the emotions are raw, and everyone brings the kind of honesty that a subject like this demands.
I can’t imagine taking on a topic like this was easy. But Kranz was compelled to tackle it following the Parkland school shooting in 2018. In penning the script he chose to focus on the aftermath rather than the shooting itself. In doing so he’s able to give time to the other victims – those who have had loved ones taken away from them through these senseless and unfathomable acts of violence. The characters Kranz gives us are so authentic they could be any number of real-world people who have been impacted by this stomach-churning trend.
The movie begins with the camera resting on a small town Episcopalian church. Inside, staff members led by the affable but slightly neurotic Judy (Breeda Wool), prepare one of their rooms for a meeting. Four chairs and a table are set up the center of the room. Water and snacks in the corner. A very businesslike social worker named Kendra (Michelle Carter) comes in and examines the room, rearranges the chairs, and scans for any emotional triggers. She’s well aware of what’s about to take place and she needs everything to be exactly right. Kranz doesn’t lay everything out right away, but he gives us clues to point us in the right direction. Essentially Kendra is a mediator bringing two sides together and the room is a neutral site where they can meet.
Just as Kendra has the room to her liking the first couple arrives. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and his wife Gail (Martha Plimpton) enter the church already looking worn down and emotionally spent. They’re there but reluctantly, seemingly following the advice of their therapist back home. “Don’t interrogate. Don’t be vindictive.” they repeatedly remind themselves. Within moments the second couple arrive, Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), equally unsure about being there and a bit apprehensive. They too come with an incredibly heavy weight on their shoulders, one that forever connects them to the couple across the table.
Kendra leaves and the next 90 minutes are spent in the room with the four pain-ridden adults. After navigating through some awkward and uncomfortable small talk, Kranz and his characters start to unpack the real reason they have come together. Both families lost their sons in the same mass school shooting years earlier. Jay and Gail’s son Evan was among the many killed inside the school that day. For Richard and Linda the sobering difference is that their son Hayden did the killing.
In a remarkable show of restraint, Kranz keeps the conversations that follow firmly grounded and crushingly real. There’s nothing big or showy about them and there’s no waving to awards season voters. The closest he comes to a “big scene” is in a key moment with Gail, but it’s so deftly handled by Plimpton that you never second-guess it. That’s really the marvel of the film as a whole. You never second-guess any of it. Not the characters, not the interactions, not the emotions. Everything is rooted in truth. There’s not a hollow moment or a single false note.
It goes without saying that movies like this inevitably sink or swim on the backs of their cast. In “Mass” the four central performances are nothing short of magnificent with each screen veteran doing career-best quality work. Each performance is perfectly calibrated and distinctly personal to each particular character. Isaacs barely suppresses Jay’s frustration as he still tries to grasp the logic behind the shooting, quoting studies on the human brain while readily admitting he’s ill-equipped to understand them. Plimpton has less dialogue but her pained expressions tell us everything. Gail is holding so much inside of her that she could burst at any second. Dowd is so earnest in portraying a shattered woman tortured by her inability to reconcile the son she loved with the murderer he became. And Birney brilliantly balances Richard’s thinly veiled exasperation with his crippling sense of guilt.
“Mass” is a harrowing and emotionally draining chamber piece that may test your endurance. Kranz takes that into consideration, occasionally stepping out of the room to let us catch our breath. But despite the film’s challenging material, it doesn’t end without a ray of hope. It may just be a glimmer, but when dealing with something of such gravity and when the very notion of hope feels so foreign it’s a welcomed touch. And it works here because it feels genuine and it doesn’t undermine everything that came before it. It’s also fragile and far from guaranteed. By the end we still aren’t sure of what’s ahead for these four people or how their lives will play out. But that small sliver of hope gives us something to cling to.
In the end Kranz doesn’t pretend to have all the answers and he smartly makes his film about people rather than hot topics. There are references to the things that are often thrust to the center of these discussions – guns, violent video games, the internet. But the truth is something deeper has changed within our society. Something has polluted our ways of seeing each other, our ways of communicating. Our ability to respect, empathize, and show compassion has dulled. Why? We as a nation and a society are much like the four people in the church room. We don’t have an answers and we’re still looking. The key difference is they’ve been affected in the most devastating way imaginable and their experience should be an eye-opener for the rest of us.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
It sounds a harrowing watch but I do want to do this. Obviously my watching of it will be coloured by my British incapacity to understand the American obsession with owning guns. Good to see Jason Isaacs getting some class work!
It’s so so so well done. My favorite film from Sundance. I love that it doesn’t get sidetracked. It so tightly focused on the human toll of those trying to cope. I can’t quit thinking about it.
I admire anyone able to take on such a difficult but reality-based topic and make film of it. I admire anyone who can act in it. I’m not sure I could watch this in a theater but maybe at home with a box of kleenex 😦
I know what you mean. But definitely see it even if at home. Hopefully it will get a distributor soon. I’ll be championing this one all year.
That’s a potent review Keith, this movie had to have been tough to watch. Kinda one of those where you’re left in silence for a minute or two afterwards, not really reacting or processing. Just….numb. That all sounds depressing but actually that’s a high compliment. A movie that can get into this kind of a topic and make it feel real is a hell of an achievement. And of course a bold one.
And by “Make it feel real” I mean authentic and emotionally honest.
Thanks so much and you absolutely nailed my reaction as the credits rolled…absolute silence. I was blown away by this one man. Best film of the ones I saw at Sundance. Can’t wait for it to get distribution.
Oh man, this looks heavy. It’s in my watchlist. Oh, and fuck that crazy-ass Marjorie Greene and he bullshit conspiracies as well as hassling the victims of those school shootings.
Easily my favorite film that I saw at Sundance.
This sounds really heavy but I’m very interested in seeing it. I’ll probably cry like a baby at some point.
I’m not going to lie, it’s really heavy but really worth it. And I reared up on more than one occasion. It’s just saw raw and grounded. I absolutely loved it.
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