There’s enough pain and tragedy to go around in actor Fran Kranz’s impressive directorial debut, Mass. The irony is that the four central characters in a room, jammed together at a too-small table to discuss the emotional impact of a school shooting, are basically arguing about who is carrying the most. Kranz, who most will remember from the series Dollhouse and his role in Cabin in the Woods, isn’t the most obvious choice for a film like this, but he shows a knack for getting the best out of actors we already expect a lot from, and for making cinematic a one-room conversation piece that would seem to be better off as a one act stageplay.
Largely taking place within the bland decor of an Episcopalian church, Mass is given color by the performances of Ann Dowd, Reed Birney, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton in a rare, and quite welcome, big-screen role. Jay (Isaccs) and Gail (Plimpton) have arrived to meet with Richard (Birney) and Linda (Dowd), for reasons Kranz keeps deliberately at bay. We know this gathering isn’t one that came easily, that much is clear from the organizer who nitpicks every detail, plus Gail’s reticence to show up. Body language says a lot; when all four finally get together there’s defensiveness in some, guilt and resignation in others. Kranz doesn’t rush things, allowing his actors room to maneuver within their characters.
The deliberate pacing lingers a little too long, and Mass can start to feel stagnant as the four tiptoe around one other verbally, trading pleasantries and small talk. It’s not all warmly-received. It takes a while, but finally, we learn what’s happening and a switch goes off. Jay and Gail’s son was murdered by Richard and Linda’s boy while he was committing a mass shooting. He would turn the gun on himself, too. Everyone has lost someone here, but is the pain equal? A flood of rage, resentment, and regrets comes rushing forth to such a degree it can be overwhelming and it wouldn’t be a surprise if some can’t handle it. I can only imagine how it must have felt within the confines of that enclosed set with tensions running so high. But the heavy atmosphere gives the film a naturalistic feel, so that it feels like you’re a fly on the wall looking in at something you’re not supposed to.
All of the performances are terrific, with each actor navigating the shifting moods with ease. These couldn’t have been easy characters to get into the proper headspace; each is carrying an oppressive amount of anger and shame. But for me, it’s Plimpton who stood out most even though she probably has the least amount of dialogue. As Gail, she mostly sits simmering in her chair, curled so tight she might as well be in a separate corner of the room. You can feel the heat radiating off of her, and every time Linda makes a friendly overture you fear Gail is going to jump up and smack her. Or worse. You can’t help wondering if this meeting will end in another tragedy. When Plimpton does get her big moment, as everyone does at some point, the catharsis is like a weight being lifted off of the chest. She makes us realize we were clenching our fists and holding our breath the whole time right along with her. Really tremendous stuff on her part.
Occasional glimpses outside, whether it be to a park, the colorful stained glass windows, or to the always-nervous church organizer Judy (Breeda Wool), help Mass feel like a movie and not a recorded play. As well-crafted as it is, this is one of those movies few will want to watch more than once. Movies about mass shootings have been done numerous times, even those that examine the aftermath on those who remain. I don’t know if Mass adds anything new to the discussion, other than a glimmer of hope that people can pull themselves out of the darkness. There’s no happy ending to be found here, and as these people reach a point of understanding it comes across a little forced. It’s the one bit of fantasy that Kranz allows to enter that room and it should have been kept locked outside the door.
Mass opens in theaters on October 8th. You can also check out my interview with the cast and director here.