REVIEW: Mass [2021]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 111 minutes
    Release Date: October 8th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Bleecker Street Media
    Director(s): Fran Kranz
    Writer(s): Fran Kranz

I don’t think I can say it.

First things first: you should go into Fran Kranz‘s directorial debut Mass as blind as possible. Knowing the premise beforehand won’t necessarily ruin anything, but he is hiding the particulars with reason as far as the emotional and narrative impact that comes with one of the characters saying it as plain as day. And that moment should be allowed its full weight. You should know that death binds these two couples—Martha Plimpton‘s Gail and Jason Isaacs‘ Jay opposite Ann Dowd‘s Linda and Reed Birney‘s Richard—but not quite the complexity of its scope where it comes to their unique perspective on it. So don’t read the rest of this review. Don’t read any review until you’ve seen it for yourself to let it unfold unencumbered by prejudice.

That’s a word that will arise when talking about the topic at-hand outside of its depiction. How can it not? School shootings are almost as politicized as abortions in the most perverse way considering so-called “Pro Life” activists on the latter subject would rather preserve the warped fallacy that a document ratified in 1791 protects their “right” to own military-grade automatic weaponry than protect their children’s lives. To therefore hear how Kranz’s film places the parents of a victim of one such incident across from the parents of the perpetrator who murdered him is to light a fuse that can only be extinguished by watching what it contains rather than presuming what it does without evidence. Because despite a heated moment of debate, politics are intentionally left out.

They need to be for the message at its core to come through. Kranz’s goal is not to change the world by somehow solving an issue no one on either side believes can be solved without the other inexplicably joining them. It’s to remind us that just because our experiences, pain, and love can manifest in infinitely different ways, we as human beings remain the same. We live our lives through a unique and personal vantage point that no one else can fully grasp unless their life was marked by the exact same events and choices. That these four people all endured the same tragedy is meaningless where it comes to understanding what happened and why. Not even a spouse can fully process any grief besides their own.

Rather than overtly place each person’s privilege or flaws at the forefront of who they are, Kranz carefully provides his characters with a backstory that infers upon their demeanor as it engages with the plot without dictating the plot itself. Maybe Richard and Linda are better off financially than Jay and Gail. Maybe one couple holds religion in high esteem while the other seeks to distance itself from its often domineeringly intrusive bow-tied yearning for “purpose.” We know which is which by the way they carry themselves. We know it from the way they roll their eyes or scoff under their breath. We don’t need more than that because none of it—nature or nurture—provides the definitive answers they seek. Answers do not exist. Not for this.

What we get instead are glimpses into the past through the present that open a door onto that which they share. While the circumstances are obviously a chasm apart, both couples did lose a child. One must reconcile the fact that their son didn’t have a choice as the other reconciles the fact that theirs made the choice, but neither saw their child again. Neither was able to comfort them. Neither will ever be the same. And neither is to blame. Kranz is very meticulous in his scripting to strip as much animosity as possible from what becomes eighty-minutes of uninterrupted dialogue between his four main characters. Richard and Linda didn’t pull the trigger. Gail and Jay didn’t sue as though they did. But the anguish remains raw.

The result gets heated, especially considering the differences between them. One side is ravaged by emotion not because they feel more, but because they are allowed to feel at all. What would happen if Richard and Linda were to be blubbering about their loss? They’d be reviled more than they already are as the people who raised a homicidal maniac. And with that truth also comes the reality that they cannot speak their minds either. Jay is quick to recall from memory every document illustrating the timeline of that day and every psychological hypothesis about why it happened as though facts and expert opinions lead to an objective consensus. But just like he and Gail can’t be objective about their boy, Richard and Linda can’t with theirs either.

Does that mean they’re delusional? No. They unequivocally reject what their son did. They acknowledge they blame themselves for not seeing the signs and not doing more when they did. But he was still their child. You don’t have to absolve him or even defend him to still love him as the once innocent baby they brought into this world. That is the only objective truth Kranz has given us: that monsters leave behind loved ones too. Our world is so quick to vilify those marked by what our monsters did that we forget they are mourning one more person than everyone else. To realize that isn’t to denigrate the deceased’s memory or empathize with the shooter—we should never do either. It’s to remember all their victims.

Mass is therefore about context. It’s about rejecting crutches (along with the quick rejection of political posturing, Kranz sets this confrontation in an Episcopal church to neuter the religious aspect of Catholicism), tearing down walls bolstered by emotional armor, and discovering how grief can both cleanse and destroy. And while doing so in a single room with a limited cast conjures thoughts of theatrical staging, the fact that Kranz went straight to film does alter those aesthetic preconceptions. I never felt like the production was stagey. The way the camera pans from one person to the next lends a very intentional cinematic quality that you can’t get as an audience sitting in a theater. It’s minimal and methodical, but it knows its medium and leans into its strengths.

Having a cast as brilliant and vulnerable as this helps too. Everyone embraces their role straight down to the supporting players like an over-exuberant and awkward Judy (Breeda Wool) trying to make her church’s guests comfortable as though she’s selectively forgotten the weight of why they’ve arrived. How Kranz mirrors the main quartet shouldn’t be undersold either, though. Isaacs lets his rage impact his need for clear-cut facts just as Birney lets his shame do the same. And Plimpton lets her love for her son keep his spirit alive just as Dowd does regardless of the minefield that comes with her doing so. Change the identities of their sons and you probably get the exact same film but with each actor playing the reverse. And that’s the point.

[1] Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney and Ann Dowd star in MASS, written and directed by Fran Kranz. Credit: Bleecker Street
[2] Reed Birney and Ann Dowd star in MASS, written and directed by Fran Kranz. Credit: Bleecker Street
[3] Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton star in MASS, written and directed by Fran Kranz. Credit: Bleecker Street

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