Anchored by four remarkable performances, Fran Kranz’s Mass delivers unbearable tension and drama from a simple premise. The ensemble and unassuming direction delivers an unforgettable cinematic experience.
The film’s ensemble consists of a pair of couples coming together for a meeting in a church. Years after a deadly mass shooting at a school, the parents of one of the victims, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), meet with the parents of the perpetrator, Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd). As the meeting progresses, each set of parents attempt to understand their pain and get to the bottom of what happened.
Richard and Linda break down their life before the shooting. They express their regrets and fears about what their son was capable of, while still viewing him as their child. Jay and Gail cannot grasp how the warning signs were missed and tensions boil over.
The film excels at keeping the characters real. Richard is more analytical and reserved, while Linda is softer and delicate with her intentions. Jay begins as the mediator and voice of reason and understanding, but eventually turns into the politics of the situation and eventually bursts with unhinged emotion. Gail is simmering with anger, but never lets that anger fully come out.
Richard and Linda smartly never become the villains Jay and Gail secretly hope they are. Richard and Linda are fully aware of the horrors their son caused and never shy away from that horror. In a standout scene, Jay screams his disgust in his assumption Richard doesn’t know the facts of the case. Richard quietly states the facts that he does indeed know. The empathic nature of these characters shines through throughout the film.
The entirety of the film lies with the four performances. Taking place mostly in the same room, each actor has a complete grasp on how to approach this story, each with a firm history and established motivations. Isaacs has the most showy of the four roles, with occasional but earned emotional outbursts. Plimpton sits and simmers at the start, but her few words cut to the core. She does have a standout monologue that brings the film to an emotional crux.
Birney is the least showy, but delivers at every turn. His character conveys responsibility without diminishing his humanity and love for his child. In the hands of a lesser actor, Richard could have come across as a unlikable villain, but Birney grounds him in reality and lends him a gentle grace. Dowd’s warmth radiates throughout her scenes. She appears wounded by what her son has done, but her empathy for the parents across from her sets her apart. The film’s final scene features a prolonged monologue from Dowd that leaves the audience in awe.
For a first-time writer and director, Kranz doesn’t do too much. He sees the brilliance the actors are bringing and he does little to get in the way. His camera isn’t pulling any fancy stylistic tricks because he knows it doesn’t need to. As the film begins, the camera is on a steady foundation, but as the tension rises, the camera becomes handheld and less stable. It gives an impression that the audience is seeing something we shouldn’t have any insight into. It feels wrong, which further adds to the tension.
Mass may prove to be uncomfortable viewing for some, but the four mesmerizing performances propel a basic story into new heights. For such a impactful subject, Kranz and the actors employ such grace and understanding to deliver one of the films of the year.