'Mass': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Mass
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton in 'Mass'

An uneasy communion.

Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney play the respective parents of one of the victims and the perpetrator of a school shooting in a face-to-face encounter in Fran Kranz's chamber drama.

Debuting writer-director Fran Kranz's years as an actor show in the powerful performances he draws from his tight ensemble in Mass, a drama of searing intimacy that trades the political for the personal in its reflections on gun violence and mental health. With laser focus and unflinching emotional candor, the film approaches the seemingly unending horror of school shootings in America from the viewpoint of devastated parents on both sides of the tragedy, six years later. It's a harrowing watch, but a cathartic one, with each of the four superb principal actors delivering scenes of wrenching release.

In addition to his career in film and television (he was part of the unofficial Joss Whedon repertory company in Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods and Much Ado About Nothing), Kranz has notched up solid theater credits, including the Mike Nichols-directed Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman led by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield. His no-frills first feature could very easily have been a play, though Kranz applies minimal stylistic embellishments to give visual life to the predominantly single-setting, talk-driven piece.

Most of the action takes place around a table in a downstairs room for community group use at a small Episcopal church; it was shot in Hailey, Idaho, though the town is unnamed in the script. Parish workers Judy (Breeda Wool) and Anthony (Kagen Albright) get busy arranging a table and chairs, and setting out snacks and beverages before the arrival of strictly-business social worker Kendra (Michelle N. Carter), who surveys the setup for potential triggers. These secondary figures then retreat as the movie becomes fundamentally a four-hander.

Tension in the car between one couple, Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs), indicates the fortitude required of them just to come this far. Gail's terse manner and a few half-choked words reveal that she's still unsure whether she can go through with the carefully planned meeting. Jay's sorrowful eyes settle on a red ribbon tied to a barbed wire fence on the edge of a field backed by mountains. That image recurs later to striking effect as the aspect ratio widens to indicate a shift in the perspective of four people previously locked in their own chambers of grief.

The awkwardness in the room is palpable when Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) arrive, despite polite small talk about the drive to get there and the arrangement of flowers Linda has made for Gail. Unsure of how to proceed with a subject still too painful to discuss, they resort to methods suggested in advance by Kendra, such as sharing photographs. But it's not long before tightly wound Gail bristles at the artificial pleasantries.

Kranz's screenplay parcels out details with unhurried economy, allowing us to piece together specifics about the death of Gail and Jay's son in an attack involving explosives and firearms, carried out with unsparing cruelty by the son of Richard and Linda before taking his own life.

While Jay has become involved in the campaign against gun violence in what would appear to have been a desperate urge to fill the void, Richard is defensive, attempting to shift the discussion to inadequacies in the mental health care provided both by the school and by therapists who treated his son. His gray business suit and stiff formality make it no surprise that Richard and the more earnest, touchy-feely Linda have since separated, even if he's frank about blaming himself.

The history of their son as a victim of bullying, friendless and increasingly isolated, finding escape in online video game roleplay, emerges not as justification but as acknowledgement of alarming signs his parents admit they should have monitored more closely. But there's genuine compassion, particularly in Dowd's performance, for the helplessness of a mother watching her child become more withdrawn and struggling to reach him.

It's almost an hour into the film before voices are raised, a testament to how meticulously Kranz and his cast calibrate the emotional temperature in the room. DP Ryan Jackson-Healy's camera moves gracefully back and forth among the four participants, clocking every connecting glance or averted gaze, as Gail and Jay struggle to stick to Kendra's guidelines of expressing their feelings without being vindictive. Only when shredded nerves give way to heated outbursts does the frame tighten in on them, with movement becoming more agitated.

The most confrontational of the four — and the emotional center of the drama — is Gail, and Plimpton's open wound of a performance is a reminder that she's one of America's most undervalued actors. (Her New York stage work across dramas, musicals and comedies consistently dazzles.) Gail's anger has festered inside her since the tragedy, with no place to go, and some of the film's most affecting moments involve the flickers of realization across her face as she admits to herself that any answer she demands won't lessen her loss. Even more piercing is her gradual awareness of the commensurate pain suffered by the parents sitting opposite her, and her tearful recollection of a lovely story from when her late son was 12 is heartbreaking.

Isaacs is unexpected casting for Jay, who's strong yet sensitive, with no trace of malice; watching him break as he voices his own needs, quite distinct from Gail's, is extremely moving. While Richard thinks of his son's hate as the product of a disturbed mind, Jay sees only apathy and evil. It's the steady softening of feelings that have been hardened into him and Gail that makes their reserves of tenderness so shattering.

Birney, another invaluable regular of the New York stage community, has possibly the toughest part, Richard having somewhat compartmentalized his pain without ever finding relief from his sense of responsibility. But like all four leads, his disclosures cut deep. And Dowd as always impresses as a woman who continues to dredge down into her soul to interrogate herself on how she could have raised a murderer, yet refuses to stop loving her dead son. She gets the film's resonant concluding speech when Linda returns to share one final mournful memory after the two couples have said their goodbyes.

Kranz has made a quiet, contemplative film on a subject of ongoing national urgency. Mass is most notable for its refusal to indulge in breast-beating theatrics, instead favoring psychological complexity and human connection as it tests the boundaries of forgiveness and understanding. The church setting aside, the film's spirituality is understated — glimpsed in the framed Sistine Chapel detail hanging on one wall of the stark meeting room or in the face of Judy as she witnesses the final scene, and heard in the sounds of a hymn sung during choir practice over the closing moments.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production company: 7 Eccles Street
Cast: Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, Breeda Wool, Michelle N. Carter, Kagen Albright
Director-screenwriter: Fran Kranz
Producers: Fran Kranz, Casey Wilder Mott, J.P. Ouellette, Dylan Matlock
Executive producers: Joe Abrams, Nico Falls, Marshall Rawlings, Douglas Matejka
Director of photography: Ryan Jackson-Healy
Production designers: Lindsey Moran, Mia Lyon Cherp
Costume designer: Michele Minailo
Music: Darren Morze
Editor: Yang-Hua Hu
Casting: Henry Russell Bergstein, Allison Estrin
Sales: CAA/Gersh
111 minutes