Approaching the extremely sensitive topic of mass shootings, Fran Kranz’s directorial debut Mass is a boilerplate chamber drama held together by its incredible performances. Unfortunately hindered by a screenplay that feels like a hodgepodge of armchair analyses of mass shooters and what leads to such horrific events in the first place, Kranz’s awareness of the pain in the subject matter feels only truly weighed in its initial moments. While engaging to watch because of the acting, Mass is a poorly constructed, exhausting look at the grieving process and the difficulty found in trying to move on from an unspeakable, unjust tragedy.
Set years after a fictional school shooting where 11 lives were taken, including the shooter himself, one of the victim’s parents, Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), finally reach out to the parents of the shooter, Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney), to converse and attempt to finally move on from their grief. The conversation between the two families plays out in a single room located in the basement of a church. Unassuming in almost every regard, Mass lets the open dialogue become the central focus as each individual wrestles with their own sense of expectations from the meeting and the reality that not everything can ever be as black-and-white as they’d like.
In what is probably the most compelling takeaway from Mass is its acceptance that moving forward does not necessarily mean finding answers. Of course, the film and its characters try to negotiate this throughout the duration of the film. Jay presents every possible explanation news and psychology articles have provided him regarding mass shooters to Richard and Linda in some hope of them acknowledging that there was something they could have done to prevent this tragedy. Trying to pin the blame on the other parents, both Jay and Gail’s concerns seem shrouded in the wonder of whether Richard and Linda are appropriately aware that they could have stopped all of this from happening.
It’s not as simple as that, which the movie all too often reminds Jay and Gail. And yet, Mass is almost two hours of rhetoric all cobbled together by a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It doesn’t feel like any character is a real person, each one embodying a piece of the conversation around gun violence. It’s a play, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the film actually does a decent job setting things up that it feels like a shame to turn all the characters into talking points. It saves most of its personal, soul-bearing moments for the very end, but the whole film feels like it’s stretching itself as if there’s an ace up its sleeve later to make it all worthwhile.
The fact is, the only aspect of Mass that ends up worthwhile is its performances. Each one carries a little bit of nuance. Birney’s portrayal of Richard is initially off-putting but once he lets down his heavily guarded defenses, it’s an instantly recognizable showcase of a father riddled with guilt. Whereas his wife Linda is brought to life by the always incredible Ann Dowd who brings a sensitivity but acceptance to her role as the mother of a murderer. Meanwhile, Plimpton and Isaacs hold back for much of the film, either casually revealing their hurt as in Plimpton’s case or eventually letting go of their hardened exterior in Isaacs.
To single out one performance would be a disservice to the importance of the rapport between everyone, but Isaacs really does give a tour-de-force as he courts the situation. His character initially comes off as if he’s come to terms with everything, but little topics set him off and by the end of the film there’s a well of sadness that has bubbled to the surface through wear-and-tear of reliving the grief he’s been suppressing and handling.
The opening scene of Mass is the most memorable moment, which plays out without any of the main cast, instead centered around preparing the room for a potentially volatile conversation. It’s the instance where the screenplay and direction are not so indebted to the actors selling generic conversations. The church owner gets snacks, sets out coffee, worries about the lighting in the room; meanwhile, the mediator focuses on stained glass and religious paraphernalia, vetoes the need for refreshments, and demands no music be heard in the room from the piano lessons and practicing choir upstairs. It’s a careful, deliberately paced scene that exemplifies the ease with which anything could potentially trigger an emotional reaction in the wake of a tragedy.
However, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Mass bounces between ideas around gun violence as if it just needs to mention it to provide the complete representation. Tricky as it is to represent such a tragic event, it does make sense to not fictionalize any one mass shooting. But by doing so, the film is stretched too thin, occasionally sprinkling in personal anecdotes from the characters that end up feeling like padding because of how they’re coaxed out through demands than casual conversation. It’s all just so theatrical in a way that makes Mass difficult to see past its artificiality. Great acting aside, Mass is constantly hindered by its screenplay and Kranz’s ineffective direction.