“Mass” (2021) is the directorial debut of Fran Kranz, who also wrote it, and the film is one of the most effective feats of drama that I have ever experienced. Its reflections on the tragic outcomes of a school shooting left me feeling bare, and yet, remarkably, not for one second did it feel exploitative.
The movie boasts four of the best acting performances I’ve ever seen and the screenplay makes its characters feel devastatingly real. This isn’t a movie to go to in order to learn something, but if you feel open to an honest rumination on grief, guilt and grace, “Mass” is worth a watch.
We watch as one victim’s parents, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton, respectively), meet with the parents of their son’s killer, Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney, respectively), in the basement of an Episcopal church. The movie runs in real time with the confrontation they all have together and the major questions a nation has to ask after every incident like this, such as, “How could this happen? Was this mass murderer evil or in pain? And how can anyone feel safe or grieve if nothing changes?”
“Mass” doesn’t attempt to offer solutions to the epidemic of school shootings, nor does Kranz make characters stand for political positions or themes. Instead, each character represents only themself. Jay and Gail have spent the past six years as advocates for gun control, only to see nothing change.
The screenplay does a tremendous job illustrating the pain that comes every day from wanting to make their son’s death mean something and feeling unable to, which reflects the reality that survivors so often are left to be activists when they are the most vulnerable, because so few others will be.
Linda and Richard are separated and have developed different ways of coping with the fact that they raised a mass murderer. I appreciated the restraint used with such a difficult topic; there are no flashbacks, no scenes of violence and we never see either the victim or the killer.
Instead, we are left to try and piece together the memories that these four parents share and that makes it feel real. Of the four performances, my favorite was Isaacs’ but I can see a case for other favorites since every viewer could see themselves in at least one of the characters.
The direction and editing in “Mass” is so good that I got the impression that one could take a still of every single shot and paste them all together into a graphic novel and still feel the tension. One of the movie’s best aspects is how it reveals its characters not just through what they say, but also how they react in fleeting moments to what is happening around them.
“Mass” is a sensitively made movie, but the few flaws it does have are the price it pays for being so emotionally dense. The characters don't know how to end their encounters, and the movie doesn't know how to completely wrap up either. A part of me felt that the film’s major moments of catharsis were a little more unbelievable than everything that came before, though what came before was still cathartic.
The movie has a framing device that can at times feel overly long or unnecessary, but it builds tension well enough that it isn’t really a flaw.
“Mass” is a miracle in so many ways, even with its flaws. It amazes me how it held my attention while being so full of conversations. The way that it allows its characters to make assertions without ever endorsing them explicitly is so essential to how it works. Most of all, it awes me that “Mass” can feature four different voices and still have a voice of its own.
Matthew Salcido is the sports editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @baggyeyedguy