Fran Krantz is a very talented actor. He’s had an impressive career in front of the camera. He’s given terrific performances in everything from the horrors of The Cabin in the Woods to the recent Jungleland. And now, he brings something unexpected. The actor has written and directed his first feature film, and it’s not what you might think. Mass tells the story of two couples facing each other after a devastating tragedy. The film stars Ann Dowd, Reed Birney, Martha Plimpton, and Jason Isaacs. The question is, can a movie that examines four people having a deep conversation in a church be all that compelling? The answer is a resounding yes.
As I write this, I question whether or not I should dig heavily into the subject matter explored here. The tragedy that has befallen these four souls, well, it is something that would be painful to anybody going through it. Perhaps the best way is to warn you, the reader. In the next paragraph, I’ll discuss a bit more of what happened and why it is so heartbreaking. The rest of the review will focus on the talent involved. As much as I feel you should go into this film completely open, it seems sensible to examine the story a little further than just a hint or two. The following paragraph won’t reveal spoilers per se, but it may explain my vagueness in revealing the plot.
Imagine facing off against the parents of somebody that murdered your child and many other children. When we hear all too regularly about school shootings, it’s damn clear that this situation happens far more than it should. The four people at the center of this film, they are all dealing with that horrifying situation. Two people face the parents of a child that shot their own. In this day and age, when there is far too much anger and violence filling the news, Mass is a good reminder that we are all human beings. The new film beautifully emphasizes that there is more than just anger and hatred when we are suffering at the hands of another person. The emotional context here is far more vast and true-to-life.
The film opens with a small church where a young boy is getting music lessons. A woman named Judy (Breeda Wool) is preparing a room for a small meeting. She desperately tries to make sure everything is in order, but at the time, we as the audience aren’t made aware of why. It’s such a simple set-up, yet Franz and DP Ryan Jackson-Healy do a remarkable job creating the atmosphere. There are several well-designed cutaways to a fence with a ribbon tied around it, the boy getting music lessons, or the placement of food and drinks for the meeting. Yes, this could have been a play. Yet it also happens to be impressively shot and edited. How they utilize the space and approach an argumentative exchange with a slight movement as things escalate is effective. As simple as this may look, there is a deliberate and powerful story here.
Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, and Reed Birney are fantastic talents. Franz understands this and allows the four to explore these rich characters. Early in the film, Ann Dowd’s Linda presents a unique object to Gail (Plimpton) and Jay (Isaacs). That may appear to be a small offering, but much like the rest of the feature, the meaning behind it is essential. All four performances are astounding. It’s easy to find yourself swept up in their pain and fear with the occasional bouts of humor. And considering the entire film is spent with these four in a room, you’d better be able to care. You do. It would be impossible not to. Frankly, while all the performances are award-worthy, it’s hard to imagine Ann Dowd not being a front-runner in this year’s Oscar race. She gives a sublime and heartbreaking show that stays with you long after viewing.
Fran Kranz’s minimalist production works on many levels. Perhaps that is because his phenomenal script places focus on the human element. We live in a strange time, and while this production completed before COVID-19 changed our lives, it is even more relevant now. As much as the subject matter is at the mercy of political brownie points as of late, this script manages to reference that just enough. The first-time screenwriter appears to want to open conversation. It’s about these four people affected by a horrific event. That’s all. Thankfully, it’s not here to only make money for tissue companies. There is hope here. For a movie without CGI or explosions, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more ambitious and brilliantly made feature this year. It’s easily one of the most profound and thoughtful movies released over the past couple of years. For a first-time screenwriter and director, it’s shocking how assured Mass is.
I hope you see Mass. Fran Kranz’s directorial debut is a nuanced and touching feature film. It is one of the most emotional and satisfying films of 2021. The performances from Ann Dowd, Reed Birney, Martha Plimpton, and Jason Isaacs are all exemplary. Even though the score by Darren Morze is minimal – much of the film features no music at all – when we do hear it, it is especially poignant. I admire this film quite a bit. It’s easy to take on a politically charged film and exploit that to get a reaction. What’s even more respectable is telling a human story from tragedy and creating a connection to all involved. I admire this film as much as I loved it. I cannot wait to see what’s next from Mr. Kranz as a filmmaker.