- Narrative Feature
- Director: Fran Kranz
- Screenwriter: Fran Kranz
- Producers: Fran Kranz, Dylan Matlock, Casey Wilder Mott, J.P. Ouellette
- Cast: Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton
Premise: Aftermath of a violent tragedy that affects the lives of two couples in different ways.
We don’t know exactly what Mass is about until well into its 110-minute runtime. We know that four people – two sets of parents – are gathered together in a room in a church that they’ve never been to before. We know they’re grieving their sons, and we know there was some reluctance regarding the meeting, but we don’t know the circumstances surrounding their sons’ deaths.
This restraint is just a small part of what makes Mass, a powerhouse debut from writer and director Fran Kranz, such a refreshing masterstroke when tackling such a difficult subject. We eventually learn that one boy was the victim and one was the perpetrator of a school shooting. The parents of the victim are Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), and the opposing parents are Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney). If you’re scared away by the inherently dark subject matter, just know that Kranz has crafted a tender, beautiful story about forgiveness and grief, one that refuses to provide easy answers – and it’s all the better for it. Further adding to the difficulties is the film’s setting: outside of the opening and closing scenes, the entire film takes place in one small room. Kranz only briefly cuts away at two key moments, but they’re punctuated by silence, a stylistic flurry that furthers the case that Kranz is an insightful filmmaker.
We’ve been conditioned – by films and the news media – to think of Dowd and Birney’s characters in a certain way. But Kranz has such an iron-clad grip on who each of these characters are and their particular viewpoints. Yes, each character goes on their own journey of growth, acceptance, and grief, and part of the fascination of the film is seeing those changes from the beginning of the film to the end. Plimpton begins the film as cagey, a quiet anger bubbling below the surface. Isaacs appears as the more forgiving character, eager to hear out the opposing side. Dowd comes across as compassionate – we get the sense that she’s the most willing to mend bridges. And Birney is the most defensive, hoping to give answers and get out. But Kranz puts each character through the ringer, never giving in to emotional shortcuts, and succeeding in portraying each character realistically first and foremost. No character is the hero and no character is a villain. And each performer is at the top of their game, making each character memorable in different ways, achieving what the script calls for at any given moment. This is a true ensemble film, when it’s nearly impossible to pick an MVP amongst them.
Kranz never shows the faces of either boy, even in the photographs that the parents exchange early on. We’re never given a flashback or a scene of the shooting, and details about the time since the shooting are sparsely given. Instead, Kranz fills in the details through anecdotes and the parents’ viewpoints. Indeed, this is a story about the parents and their trauma and, though cutting away may have been more dramatically effective, it would cheapen the survivors’ experiences.
It’s easy to say that Mass would work just as well on stage – and it’s true that Kranz conceptualized the screenplay as a play until he couldn’t get funding – but Kranz’s directorial choices emphasize why film is the best medium for the content. There’s a brilliant shot where the camera pans at a snail’s pace from Isaacs and Plimpton to Dowd and Birney, as the latter are baring their souls about their son and his choices. The screen mostly shows an empty white wall, but the void only reinforces the perceived gulf between them. It’s not a spoiler to say that Mass isn’t a film that comes to an easy conclusion for any of the main characters. Much like real grief, the journey never truly ends. But Kranz, and his cast, show an honest depiction of grief that is dramatically simplified all too-often. You wouldn’t expect a film with such dark material to contains glimmers of happiness and hope, but Kranz deftly threads that needle like few filmmakers can. And Mass is one of the best films of the year because of it.
In-person tickets for Mass can be purchased in advance here.
Mass is in theaters now in select cities.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.