‘Mass’ review: Ann Dowd gives the performance of her career in Fran Kranz’s breathtaking and empathetic debut feature [Grade: A]
How do you find the words to speak about the unspeakable? That’s the question at the heart of Mass, and it’s the question every reviewer must answer for themselves before deciding where to dive in when covering this emotionally charged chamber piece that analyzes the subject of school shootings from every angle imaginable with painful precision and extensive empathy – in short, a true film for our times if ever there was one.
Beware of spoilers below
It’s been six years since ten individuals – nine students and one teacher – lost their lives in a local school shooting. For most of the world, their reactions followed the same cycle we see time and time again. Shock that yet another school shooting has occurred. Rage against our political representatives for not doing more to prevent such pain. Support for the families who lost their loved ones in said event. And then, after about a week, the news – and most of America – moves on, with no substantial progress being made and no justice for those who are no longer with us. Except, for Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), it never really ends. After losing their son Evan in the shooting, they’ve been stuck in a state of limbo, unable to fully handle their heartache and living with a scorn not just for the system that allows these events to keep occurring but also for the perpetrator’s parents, Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), whom they refuse to believe couldn’t have recognized some sign in their son that foreshadowed his actions – one which may have enabled them to stop the shooting before it ever happened. And that’s why, after these six years, both families have agreed to meet away from the world, in the basement of a church, and finally converse face-to-face, asking the questions they’ve long been afraid to and looking for answers that have always eluded them.
Remarkably, for a movie made about such a politicized problem in this country, Mass is never preachy, refraining from namedropping particular politicians (aside from one off-handed mention of President Obama) or specific shootings in order to push an agenda or sell us on some sort-of social position held by actor turned writer-director Fran Kranz. Rather, this is a far more subtle and sensitive study of this turmoil – one first and foremost focused on the lives of those left behind, the desire to make meaning out of death, the human inclination to assign blame at those similarly suffering, and the formidable weight that accompanies an act of forgiveness. It’s a film that forces you to consider contrasting perspectives and authentically feel another’s pain for yourself, which, in these dark and divided times seems like an impossible ask. And yet, that’s exactly what makes Mass utterly essential viewing.
A film primarily set in one space and focused on four actors delivering dialogue for nearly two hours better have one hell of a script and, thankfully, Fran Kranz’s screenplay is nothing short of staggering. Simply put, it’s an audacious achievement that not only serves as a standout in 2021 but also as a mightily momentous work of screenwriting that all who work in this space should aspire to match for years to come. Kranz’s ability to cover almost every concern and interrogate every emotion associated with school shootings is astounding, and he does so in a way that never makes it feel as if the film is beating you over the head with a sledgehammer with its messaging or morals. And that’s because Kranz isn’t asking us to support some specific law or legislation – he merely wants us to understand how these atrocities affect individuals on an intimate level, given how often our media is obsessed with a macro look at such mindless massacres. There are hints of the obstacles of the outside world (such as brief comments about careless politicians or ineffective gun control), but Kranz knows we hear those arguments day in and day out, and he’s not interested in rehashing them here. Instead, by giving the families of the victims the stage to share their stories, he directs our attention away from the political warfare in Washington and towards the trauma of those who have had their lives torn apart by this tumult.
The sharp structure of Kranz’s script allows the writer to say the most while simultaneously saying the least when designing this discourse, never over-inundating us with information that isn’t completely crucial to our comprehension of the characters’ experiences. Throughout the entire film, it’s as if we’re a fly on the wall observing this tense talk, and, as such, the leads don’t specifically spell out every detail of the shooting and the aftermath in chronological order, with viewers gradually putting the pieces together themselves as more truths are revealed. This adds an air of authenticity to their conversation, as it never seems as if they’re speaking to the audience – only each other. Likewise, each character’s dialogue feels precisely tailored to their personalities as they depict their distress in their own unique way; Richard is sturdily stoic, never letting his hurt get the best of him, and therefore keeping his statements short and succinct, while Gail is outwardly antagonistic and aggressive, never shy to jump to abrupt accusations. During it all, Kranz’s minimalistic direction supplements his shrewd script by primarily letting his actors convey his written word without interruption, but he’s also able to skillfully realize whose reactions matter most and when, purposely highlighting one character’s perception of another’s anecdote when it most benefits the poignancy of the picture as a whole. Just as effective is his choice to introduce shakier camera movement during the movie’s most strained scenes, setting these sequences apart from the stillness of before.
It also helps that Kranz’s work is elevated even more by one of the best ensembles ever assembled in the history of film. For every single moment in which they are onscreen, Birney, Dowd, Isaacs, and Plimpton are entirely engaged, playing their parts to perfection and never once feeling false in their emotional expression. Additionally, they allow themselves to evolve in these roles over the course of the two hours, resisting the temptation to take things to an 11 right off the bat. This is most evident in Isaacs and Plimpton, who arrive with sobriety and storminess respectively at the start before working past the torment that has consumed them for half a decade. Isaacs is incredible as he gradually gives into the anger and agony he’s often ignored when attempting to use activism to distract him from this despair, and his mid-movie moment where he describes Evan’s death is some of the most honest and heartbreaking acting ever captured in cinema. Only when he allows himself to feel the full range of his aching can he ever recover, and Issacs personifies this journey with profuse pathos. Meanwhile, Martha Plimpton has never been better as the grieving Gail, beginning the meeting with her guard up and communicating with considerable coldness until her true troubles are unearthed. The questions Gail asks – If I let go of this grief, will I lose the memory of my son? Why did he have to die if it won’t mean anything for the world at large and bring about any bigger change? – are upsettingly unforgettable and linger in your mind for days, as does Gail’s climactic choice, which is so compassionately and convincingly characterized by Plimpton.
Birney and Dowd more than hold their own as the converse couple in this communion, and although the former is mostly tasked with disclosing expository dialogue related to his son and the shooting for much of the movie, he manages to make the most of a tremendously tough role regardless, letting just enough emotion come through the cracks of his seemingly detached demeanor to hint at the hurt he carries with himself as well. Though he’s on the defense for most of their meeting, Birney does deliver one brutal line later on that holistically describes how difficult it is to keep up this face in his everyday existence, stating that, while the world will only ever only mourn the ten who died by his son’s hands in this shooting, he – and his wife – will mourn eleven (as a result of his son’s suicide), and they’ll forever be alone in that anguish. Alongside Birney, Ann Dowd gives the performance of her career as the mother of this murderer who is incapable of concealing her intense sorrow over the entire situation, struggling to reconcile the thoughtful but troubled child she raised with the dangerous monster he became in his final days. One may be inclined to judge Linda – or Richard – for mistakes they made along the way, but Dowd’s performance in particular is so full of outspoken and openhearted frankness that you can’t help but respect her for this realism. And, thanks to a rivetingly resonant monologue relayed by Dowd in the film’s final scenes, you leave thinking of Linda, with her affecting arc eternally entrenched in your mind.
Fran Kranz has pulled off the impossible with Mass, a story about school shootings that separates itself from the chaos and clutter of today’s cultural conversation and instead puts forth a parable about four broken people learning how to live and love once again after enduring unimaginable loss. In a time when it’s harder than ever to be vulnerable with one another and bare our souls in fear of being exposed to even more enmity, Mass urges us to learn and listen from others instead of leaving the world behind, showing how periods of horrible hurt can lead to healing and hope if we allow ourselves to open up, just once. Bolstered by four of the finest performances of the year and a somber yet stirring script, Mass may break your heart, but by the end, it will put it back together again – and in better shape than ever before.
Bleecker Street will release Mass only in theaters on October 8.