Set years after a school shooting ripped their families apart, Mass tells the story of two sets of parents who gather in a church basement to discuss what took place. Having lost their son in the devastation, Gail and Jay (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) have come to the meeting with the intent of getting answers. Meanwhile, as the parents of the assailant, Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney) have come in humility to listen but also grieve themselves. As the two families unleash their burdens upon one another, they become faced with an emotional crossroads which demands that they decide the next steps for their lives.
Written and directed by Fran Kranz, Mass is an in-depth examination of what it means to deal with our suffering and what steps it takes to move forward. For his first feature, Kranz shows remarkable maturity by allowing his characters to search for something—anything—to cling to that would explain what took place yet he also acknowledges the complexity and ambiguity of cultural pain that cannot easily be explained away. By keeping the film in one location, Kranz forces the viewer to remain in the uncomfortable nature of the moment. Like these four souls trapped in this wrestling match of sorrow, so too is the viewer incapable of escaping this difficult conversation. Leaning into the obscurity of their suffering, Kranz speaks of many potential contributing factors for the shooting itself. From parental neglect, mental health or even violent video games, Mass mentions as many reasons as possible yet never focuses on any specific blame. Instead, the film recognizes that these events have no easy answers. As such, Kranz never over-simplifies the conversation, allowing this discussion of trauma and its effects to spin out in ways that feel natural and honest.
In addition, the film features four truly remarkable performances from its leads. While it could be argued that performances by Plimpton and Dowd rise to the top, this is an ensemble film in its truest sense. Each lead feels fully present throughout the film, giving it an aura of authenticity and purity. From Birney’s burden of shame to Plimpton’s passionate reluctance to acknowledge the humanity of those in front of her to Isaac’s search for answers and Dowd’s quiet inner pain, every character is shown as a complex person struggling to survive their own suffering, There is no stereotypical ‘villain’ to hate, nor any particular hero to love. Instead, this is a space of brokenness and trust between four artists who understand how to bring the pain of their character to life in ways that never lean into caricatures or stereotypes.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about Kranz’s script is its interest in humanizing its characters by balancing its voice and perspective. As parents left in the shadows of grief for the loss of their son, Gail and Jay are given every opportunity to vent their rage, pain and questions as they deem necessary. In every way, Mass validates the suffering of the victims who were affected by this unbelievable tragedy. However, whereas other films of this nature might be tempted to exact their pound of flesh on the parents of the shooter, Kranz also manages to portray them as victims themselves. Although Gail and Jay’s son may have been one of the many who were killed, so too have Linda and Richard experienced losses. Whether it’s the loss of a son they thought they knew or simply the fallout from a community looking to blame them for his actions, Linda and Richard are experiencing as many questions and anger as those who sit across the table from them. Through stories and tears, Linda and Richard paint a beautiful picture of their son as valuable that never absolves him of responsibility for his actions.
Though both families were affected differently, both matter.
What’s more, the film also examines what it means to move forward from these substantial losses. Left with only emotional rubble behind them, these families must navigate the next steps that are required to allow for healing. What does it mean to let go of one’s rage and suffering? Forgiveness here feels like an ‘f-word’ in and of itself. Does it still honour the victim? Does it release the guilty of blame? In many ways, forgiveness feels like the only possible step yet it is almost impossible to utter out loud. Mass recognizes that there is a cost to grace that releases the guilty but also frees the broken hearted and leaves space for hope to begin.
Powerful and unrelenting, Mass is definitely one of the best films of the year. Featuring some truly remarkable performances and a sparkling screenplay, Kranz leans into the darkness and pain of the moment without ever losing hope that something new can begin. As a result, despite its difficult subject matter and challenging conversations, this is definitely one Mass worth attending.
MASS opened in limited release in the US on October 8th, 2021 and will be available in theatres on Friday, October 15th, 2021.