After the events of the past few years (BLM and the racial reckoning, the pandemic, mass shootings, and deadly natural disasters), we’ve all be dealing with collective grief. It doesn’t always affect everyone in the same way — some of us internalize it while others deal with it in a more outward manner. Writer/director Fran Kranz’s directorial debut Mass is an urgent and timely drama about collective trauma and two sets of parents dealing with the consequences of a shared tragedy. Filled with an intense subject matter, emotional and thought-provoking screenplay, and some of the year’s best performances, “Mass” is a masterclass in filmmaking.
The film opens with a church administrator preparing for a couple of parents who will be using the church space for a face-to-face meeting after a tragedy that happened years ago. She is unsure how to best accommodate the meeting and that only intensifies the situation. Once the couples arrive, the mood just gets tenser and weirder, and the rest of the film is just the conversation between the parents and the facilitator.
Kanz gives weight to the gravity of the situation by making the conversation itself the focal point of the film — there is no fluff, just the naturalism of an encounter like this. The conversation is nonlinear and leaves the viewer at times wondering the relationship between these parents and how they connect to the tragedy that they seem to be talking around most times. While one could argue that a film with this much stationary dialogue could be tedious and hard to get through, Mass is the exact opposite. Because the dialogue was written with that sensitivity in mind, the film draws you in and forms a bond between the viewer and the characters because we can all empathize with the collective trauma presented here.
Being that the majority of the film was shot in one room, the director and cinematographer do a fantastic job at panning the room to show the face and emotions of all four characters — it’s shot with such attention to detail and emotion (from the shaky cam at times and the use of focus and blurring) that the film knocks the wind out of you. You empathize with parents on both sides because it takes a lot of courage, resilience, and patience to agree to sit face-to-face and have this conversation. Do you blame yourself? Blame the other parents? Blame the perpetrator?
While Kanz’s direction and writing are on point, this film would not have the gravitas it has if it weren’t for the outstanding performances from all four parental characters. Ann Dowd and Reed Birney are parents coping with the unthinkable. One can only imagine how you go through the world after an event like this with the weight of this over your head — do you ever get from under it, or does it follow you for the rest of your life.
Dowd is astounding in her performance as a grieving mother dealing with the blame and consequences of that fateful day’s events and the aftermath of it. She’s still grappling with the everyday. Her husband (Birney) is still grappling with the way he processes his emotions and grief. Kanz’s did a superb job in giving all of the characters a slightly different way of dealing with their grief — not only through the different genders but also with the parents of the victims versus the parents of the perpetrator — it’s quite the emotional rollercoaster, and these actors’ performances give it the necessary depth.
But saying that Dowd gave a standout performance does not take anything away from the performances of the rest of the cast — who always bring what’s needed to every role they take. Plimpton steals the show in the show in the third act. The pacing between Dowd, Issacs, Plimpton, and Birney was just right — from the delivery of their words to the tone and their voice and the mannerisms and body language they used. They effortlessly feed off of each other. You can see the tension in their marriages. There’s isolation and detachment and lots of seeing and questioning. There’s apathy and cold callousness and rage and hate on the other end of the spectrum — who’s to say which reaction is right?
Between the cast and Kanz’s dialogue and direction, Mass (is it “mass” in a school shooting sense or “mass” as the tumor of grief and blame that is consuming you) is a jolting and emotional look at the emotional devastation left in the aftermath of a mass shooting — a school shooting in particular. It makes us contemplate the whole nature versus nurture debate when it comes to children and parenting.
Do you blame yourself when your child commits such a devastating act? Did you do all you could do to avoid it? Did you see the warning signs? Did you ignore the red flags? These are the questions we always ask ourselves when we have no real answers as to why something so tragic happens. It’s also a film about grief and coping with what’s left behind — do you let it control your life? It’s also a film about how the aftermath of such incidents is handled — institutionally, legally, and in terms of punishment. Fran Kanz and the cast deliver an unfortunately timely and relevant film that lingers long after the end credits roll.