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Review: Mass

October 15, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Mass, the feature directorial debut of actor turned filmmaker Fran Kranz, is a film that explores a hot button topic (in this case mass shootings and gun control), and manages to do so in a way that feels honest instead of exploiting it for easy melodrama.

The film is set in the aftermath of a horrific high school shooting, and instead of trying to depict the event itself, Kranz’s screenplay is simply about having some of the parents of those involved talking to each other several years after the fact. It’s an approach that allows Mass to probe questions of grief, how trauma impacts those on different sides of such an event, and if healing is truly possible after a tragedy like this.

The setup is pretty straightforward; Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs), the parents of one of the victims, are meeting for the first time with Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney), the parents of the shooter. The meeting is taking place around a table in the backroom of a church, with a therapist (Michelle N. Carter) on hand to ensure things go smoothly.

The first twenty minutes of the film provide setup for the meeting, as the church’s caretaker (Breeda Wool) obsesses over getting things ready for the arrival of the two couples, her nerves providing a sense of unease. Once the four main players settle into the room, Kranz’s film becomes a chamber piece built around its four-person ensemble. The meeting starts off with pleasantries. But it’s undercut by tension and things soon become heated, as Jay asks Linda and Richard piercing questions about the guilt they feel for their son’s actions, and if they take responsibility for ignoring the warning signs.

Despite almost the entire movie being limited to a single, plainly dressed room, cinematographer Ryan Jackson-Healy manages to do some interesting things with the camera. The images start off very still and stately, maintaining a distance through wide shots. But as tensions and emotions rise in the room, the camerawork becomes handheld and slightly shaky, moving in for closeups around the table that always work to compliment each of the performances.

While the film features an original screenplay by Kranz, Mass feels like something that could have originated on the stage. It essentially plays out as an intense and emotional conversation between its four leads, and the success of Mass absolutely lies in the incredible and believable performances of Plimpton, Isaacs, Dowd and Birney. Likely because he is an actor himself, Kranz gives each of his four main players a chance to shine and does a very good job of directing them, letting the camera linger on their faces to capture the emotion of their big moments.

Isaacs is excellent as a father who has turned his grief into advocating for social change, as the actor brilliantly allows his character’s simmering rage to slowly boil over as he starts to cross-examine the other parents. The intensity of his performance plays well off of Birney, who does fine work as the most buttoned up and pragmatic of the group. While Richard is not indifferent to what happened, he is the one most willing to accept that several years have passed, and his almost preternatural calmness causes Isaacs’ Jay to push back even further.

Plimpton delivers a very moving portrayal of a grieving mother, with her gutting facial expressions shown in closeups revealing that Gail’s grief is still very much an open wound that has been unable to heal. Finally, Dowd is devastating as a mother still struggling to accept the atrocities committed by her son, while also trying to come to terms with the fact that she is still grieving his loss despite what he did in the end. There is a real pain and honesty behind her performance, and Dowd’s final moments in the film are gut-wrenching.

Kranz’s film doesn’t lay blame, but it does question how much responsibility parents have for the actions of a child. It doesn’t really go that deep into the actual psychology behind a school shooter, and the bits we do learn about the perpetrator of this heinous crime offer the somewhat expected portrait of a bullied loner with mental health issues and too-easy access to guns. But the parents in question have seemingly come to this conclusion, and don’t pretend to have all the answers, either.

More so than being a political film (the party affiliations of the characters are never explicitly discussed, though we can somewhat surmise), Mass is a film about empathy. It’s a film about trying to find healing and common ground in the face of an unspeakable tragedy that has obviously impacted two families equally but differently. And, as cliched as that may sound, Kranz largely avoids cliches in Mass, going beyond simple platitudes or easy resolutions to ignite a conversation that cuts much deeper.

It’s not always an easy film to get through, and one that left me quite emotionally exhausted. But the strength of the writing and performances make it an experience worth having, and the conversations that Mass ignites will keep playing out in your head for days and weeks afterwards.

Mass is now playing in select theatres. It’s being distributed in Canada by MK2 | Mile End.

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