While methodical and perhaps better fit to be a play, ‘Mass’ is one of the most affecting and heartbreaking films of 2021
The first ten minutes or so of Mass are all about building the scenery. We watch as three characters maneuver a table and chairs and snacks and more for a function we aren’t informed about. In the basement of a church, we watch seats being placed around a table in a mostly empty room, and we are told that it will soon be filled with four people that have a lot of conversation before them. Kendra (Michelle N. Carter) explains that everything needs to be perfect for her clients. This mediation will make all the difference. Even placement of a tissue box could determine what happens in the room.
The characters sit around the table for more than an hour of Fran Kranz’s film, and the setting and costuming and design and more are all critical to the success of the movie. Kranz’s script, too, does some heavy lifting. But at the end of the day, this is a movie about four people.
A few years prior, a school shooting left a number of students dead. Today, the parents of the shooter and the parents of one of the victims will meet face-to-face for the first time to air their grievances and (hopefully) bury the past once and for all. From there, all that matters is how deeply you’ll fall under the spell of Ann Dowd, Reed Birney, Martha Plimpton, and Jason Isaacs.
By the time our four protagonists have left the room at the end of the film, it is clear why this was so important. Every shot and every scene relies on the audience knowing where in space we are. Because as soon as the conversation starts, we don’t have time to catch our breath.
There isn’t much to say about the story of the film. In essence, it is a conversation that goes on between four people that need to talk. They discuss the last five years, the lives of their kids today, share photos of family, and consider whether anything could’ve been prevented. Sure, secrets are revealed constantly about the lives of these people, but the way that details are laid out is so careful. The film is mostly about watching four of the best actors on stage and screen do their jobs. Martha Plimpton and Ann Dowd in particular each have moments that will leave an audience in tears.
As they talk about the lives and trajectories of two young men who died tragically, we learn more and more about the toll that a school shooting takes on a family. This movie, in some ways, feels like the sequel to We Need to Talk About Kevin or Elephant, or any other movie about a school shooting. This is all about fallout, the consequences of paying too much or too little attention to your children. It’s about memory.
Mass is all about forcing you to squirm in your seat along with the characters. It opens uncomfortably and becomes increasingly tragic. But as we learn more and more about the inner lives of Jay (Isaacs), Gail (Plimpton), Linda (Dowd), and Richard (Birney) we find our sympathies drawn and quartered. Maybe Gail has a right to hate the parents of the man who killed her son. Maybe Jay is seeking forgiveness for his own guilt. With every scene, your heart breaks just a little more. But as our four protagonists seek closure, the audience joins them.
Fran Kranz makes his debut feature count, especially after a solid career in front of the camera. But you’ll leave Mass recalling the power behind the performances. Sure the background is important. But it is the relationship between four people that brings you to the film.