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Sundance 2021 ‘Mass’ Review: Four Characters In Search of Salvation

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

“Tables… chairs… Jesus watching us. It’s great.”

Two pairs of parents meet in a church — Richard (Reed Birney), Linda (Ann Dowd), Jay (Jason Isaacs), and Gail (Martha Plimpton). Nobody wants to be there, not really, despite the fact that they asked for the meeting to be arranged. A church worker awkwardly prepares for the meeting, with too much food and Christian humor. It’s exactly as uncomfortable as you might expect, and then gets only more so.

Fran Kranz, an acclaimed actor making his writing/directing debut, took inspiration from recent, far too frequent real-life tragedies to explore the messiness of grief and forgiveness. We infer early that Richard and Linda’s son was a perpetrator of some unspeakable tragedy, though they dance around speaking about what happened in explicit terms. The tense conversation unfolds in real time, and is something of an endurance test. Kranz employs these formal constraints of a single location and events unfolding in real time, which offer no escape from the ugliness. It’s hard to believe with this stark formality that Mass did not start out as a work for the theater, but the isolating frames and fluorescent lighting enhance the claustrophobia and make it a perfect fit for the screen.

The characters start talking politics in addition to personal pain, debating gun restrictions and whether school officials are to blame as well. Jay and Gail talk at length about how they do not want to be dubbed “activists,” even though they speak out against violence. Eventually, it is revealed that the tragedy was a school shooting, as Richard and Linda’s son Hayden killed a number of his fellow high school students, including Jay and Gail’s son Evan, and then himself. 

This is a story of grief and anger, but also one of reluctance  — reluctance to talk, to forgive, to become figureheads. This could all feel a little too close to real-life tragedy, pulling plot points from news headlines, but Kranz is intent on bringing down both victims and perpetrators to a personal level. As the families present photos and keepsakes, the film demonstrates these are not people from the news, but people you may know — people you hope to never be.

This stripped-down piece bursts at the seams with emotional intensity, and showcases the remarkable cast and their capability for nuance and raw power. Jay simmers with anger, while Gail is nervy and fragile; Linda tries to be touchy-feely while Richard tries to be all-business. The plot features some familiar moments of blaming and finger-pointing, as Gail interrogates why the parents did not do more to make their son go to therapy, or enforce consequences when he first started demonstrating violent behavior. Yet for each predictable question that is raised, the characters offer no easy answers, only further complications. For instance, Linda admits the concerns she had about her son, but claims that there is “so much no one will ever know.” While she acknowledges her son’s terrible acts, she also tries to humanize him, discussing Hayden’s love of the outdoors and difficulty in middle school after a move. The characters’ respective sons haunt this piece, but rather than keeping them as ghosts, the parents try to conjure them from memories and material possessions, trying to piece them back together.

Kranz shows remarkable restraint in not resorting to any flashbacks or devices to break out of the single location, instead keeping us there in the room with the characters for the full runtime. The film does cut away to exterior shots of a field, however, just as Jay reaches his breaking point while shouting about his son’s death. But then we return; we get no reprieve from the worst of it. Jay knows the exact log of events down to the minute; he wants to see the other parents show regret and hurt as he recounts them. But Richard knows the pain, too, along with every last detail: who each victim was, where they were shot, and how they died. Richard hides behind lawyers and what he has said in depositions or what was made public in medical records, and tries to bury his pain deep down inside, but eventually it can no longer be contained. The cinematography and editing are as un-showy as possible, allowing the focus to remain on the quiet, and sometimes explosive, desperation. 

Despite all the awkward silences and questions the people are too afraid to ask or answer, the actors maintain a hard-hitting rhythm as they throw punches and beat themselves up for past failings. Mass may not radically change the conversation around gun violence, or offer concrete solutions or an ability to trace blame. But through its riveting performances, it seems able to at least spark discussion and visceral emotion. All the shifting blame, denials, and attempts at reconciliation can become repetitive and frustrating, and there is only so much catharsis that we are able to get. Nonetheless, Kranz commendably puts the spotlight on a critical issue and four dynamic actors.

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