Sundance 2021 Review: ‘Mass’ is Emotionally Engaging But Frustratingly Stagey

Audrey Fox reviews Fran Kranz's directorial debut, Mass, starring Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney. Mass premiered at Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, January 30, 2021.

Theatrical productions that highlight social issues, when done correctly, can provide some of the most effective commentaries on problems within our culture. There is power in taking drama from the headlines and boiling it down into something personal and intimate, yet universal. Grief and personal tragedy mingle with rage and vengeance as parents facing the most staggering loss grapple with how to forgive the people who brought into the world a life that extinguished their son’s.

Mass, directed by Fran Kranz, is the sort of play that reaches off the stage and into the audience’s hearts with its towering performances. The only problem is that Mass, of course, is not a play but a movie, and the very qualities that would have made it effective on Broadway are what make it overwrought on screen. What works when played to a live theatrical audience is too broad for the delicate intimacy of film. While “stagey” may be the vaguest, least useful critical adjective, that’s exactly what Mass is, to its detriment.

Our story begins in a small, unassuming church. The anxiety surrounding the events coordinator establishes the mood of the piece as a brisk, matter-of-fact grief counselor working in restorative justice assesses the room where the central meeting will take place. This is perhaps where Mass is strongest, as it allows tensions to build exquisitely before the main players even arrive. The heavyweight of words yet to be spoken and the still abstract notion of what is about to unfold combine to create an atmosphere thick with uncertainty and anticipation. 

Then the parents arrive. United in anguish, they are the unlikeliest of acquaintances: a father and mother who have lost their son to a school shooter and the parents of the boy who pulled the trigger. Both seeking…well, it’s hard to say. Answers? Absolution? The opportunity to both bestow and receive forgiveness? But what could they possibly have to say to one another?

It turns out, rather a lot. The majority of Mass is spent with these four grieving parents sitting around a small folding table in the backroom of an Episcopalian church, negotiating their way through a conversation they would all give anything to avoid yet somehow desperately need to have. Their tone vacillates wildly between artificially gracious, conversational, enraged, defensive, and pleading as they attempt to make sense of the incomprehensible.

There are no weak links as far as the cast is concerned: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney all perform admirably. But it’s in their performances that the inherent theatricality of Mass becomes overwhelming. Things feel over-rehearsed, somehow: the blocking is a bit too precise, the emotional beats too self-aware. Staginess isn’t necessarily a problem, but without visual dynamism, the production leans almost exclusively on its script’s merits, and that’s where Mass suffers.

Kranz’s straightforward, unembellished directing style gives the writing nowhere to hide, and it’s just not strong enough to hold up to that kind of scrutiny. A character’s every movement is staged for maximum dramatic effect: Jay gets up from the table to retrieve a box of tissues, for example, and you can imagine exactly how well it would work on stage to open up the space and provide a release valve to the tension.

It doesn’t, however, work on screen. This overdeveloped sense of intentionality makes the entire production feel self-conscious, somehow, and the ultimate result is that it feels as though a pane of glass has been placed between audience and actor, sealing it off from the full emotional range of the material. Each performance is powerful in its own right, but the presentational directing style never lets us forget that’s exactly what we’re watching: performances.

Mass deserves credit for broaching critical issues uniquely surrounding gun violence by almost completely detaching its main narrative from the school shooting and instead focusing entirely on the broken lives left behind in its wake. It also examines complicated feelings of love and grief. Is it OK to mourn someone who ruined your life? Is it OK to love someone even after they’ve done something utterly unforgivable? Mass has an undeniably strong point of view, and it’s a shame that despite strong performances from its main quartet, it finds itself hamstrung by a frustratingly stagey production style that mutes its emotional impact.

Written by
Audrey Fox has been an entertainment journalist since 2014, specializing in film and television. She has written for Awards Circuit, Jumpcut Online, Crooked Marquee, We Are the Mutants, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. Audrey is firm in her belief that Harold Lloyd is the premier silent film comedian, Sky High is the greatest superhero movie ever made, Mad Men's "The Suitcase" is the single best episode of television to date, and no one in the world has ever given Anton Walbrook enough credit for his acting work. Her favorite movies include Inglourious Basterds, Some Like It Hot, The Elephant Man, Singin' in the Rain, Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future.

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