Written and Directed by Fran Kranz.
Starring Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Breeda Wool, Kagen Albright, and Michelle N. Carter.
Years after a tragic act of violence, the parents of both the victim and the perpetrator meet face-to-face.
One needs extra hands to count the ways Mass could go wrong and come across as exploitative trite of the lowest order. Written and directed by actor turned filmmaker Fran Kranz, the story is centered on a sitdown between two sets of parents inside a private room of an Episcopalian church. The purpose for such a meeting is group healing following extended individual grieving of a senseless tragedy not unlike horrific events heard about in the real world. As such, the topic at hand is so heavy and sensitive (I can imagine some victims never wanting to go near this movie for fear it’s going to hit so close to home that it elicits or reawakens a different kind of internal pain) that it’s miraculous Fran Kranz pulls it off.
Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd, respectively) are the parents of a high schooler who committed a heinous act of violence. They are faced with lawsuits everywhere they turn and have had their lives turned upside down, but have come to find the courage to meet and talk to the families affected most by their son’s disturbing actions. Richard is the more composed of the two (he’s able to discuss his son in a very matter of fact verbalization not necessarily because he’s numb to it all, instead that he has spent an unquantifiable amount of time going over the past, the crime, and the aftermath to the point where he knows every cold-blooded detail). In contrast, Linda struggles to separate the son she knows and loves from the monster he became.
It is also easy to shame these parents for not doing enough to prevent the atrocity from an outsider’s perspective. Of course, there’s always that justifiable knee-jerk reaction to condemn America’s gun problem and failure of a supportive mental health system. However, when everyone is in the room making awkward and challenging therapeutic conversation, Martha Plimpton’s Gail says she didn’t come here to discuss politics (a powerful early scene, speaking of what’s to come, in the car suggests that she was unsure of going through with the sitdown at all) while her husband Jay (Jason Isaacs) raises his voice on both issues. Mass is not here to preach how to solve any of this devastatingly pointless violence (although it’s obvious everyone wishes guns are not so readily accessible); it’s first and foremost focused on these four individuals working their way through discussing their children while inevitably recounting the act of violence itself hoping to find some meaning or catharsis or closure.
Wisely, the characters are vague with details so as not to implicate a real tragedy. And unlike plenty of other movies tackling the subject (too often it comes across as unnecessary shock value), the violence itself is never shown, even when these characters get to the most graphic parts. Fran Kranz only cares about the victims in the room. Fortunately for him, he has assembled a group of reputable veteran actors that express an overwhelming amount of hurt, juxtaposed and turned against one another, that’s dripping in as much authenticity as the number of tears shed on screen. Even when Mass combusts into the men yelling at one another, it never feels overwrought or manipulative; the script delicately builds to that eruption so that it’s a natural pain overwhelmingly expressed coming from different headspaces.
All four characters bring up different possibilities that could have contributed to their son’s monstrously inexcusable behavior, whether it be moving and changing schools, bullying, incorrectly addressed mental health concerns, popularity inside a faction of school misfits, and the one that resonated with me most in an unexpected fashion, the realism of violent video games. Singling out the gaming industry as a scapegoat for such evil behavior will never sit right with me, considering the multiple psychological studies showing little to no correlation between the two. Still, in Mass, when Jay is lambasting military first-person shooters such as Call of Duty, at that moment, there is solidarity even without agreeing. No one has answers to what happened, but there’s empathy to be found when someone, in their indescribable suffering that most people will never be able to relate to, is casting inaccurate blame because they want some cut and dry rationalization to obtain closure. I didn’t dislike Jay bringing that up; I tried to understand his perspective and place of pain.
That also summarizes Mass as a whole; it doesn’t matter who is right, who could have done more, who makes the best points, or who are hurting the most. The theatricality grabs hold of you (as the conversation transitions into understandable hostility, the camera movements become increasingly shaky and jerky, presumably to equally fluster the audience) from the early uneasiness to escalation to diffusion.
While the meat of Mass is astoundingly acted and relentlessly emotionally penetrating, there’s a frustrating, unnecessary prologue that goes on for roughly 20 minutes as a pair of church workers (Breeda Wool and Kagen Albright) prepare the room for the sitdown. On the one hand, it does allow some additional room for tension to emerge and a sense of spatial awareness (everything from the stained glass windows to the placement of the box of tissues is drawn attention to), but they also go on talking about their personal lives and other happenings going on in the building. Likewise, barring one final and phenomenally delivered story from Ann Dowd, the resolution also drags on. Nevertheless, those 90 minutes in between are a searing actor’s showcase confronting four variations of inescapable misery. Have your box of tissues at the ready.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com