“A film of impressive vision, nuance, and skill.”
by Ken Bakely
With the exception of a few minutes on either side, Fran Krantz’s Mass is set entirely in a small annex room of a church, with a round, plastic folding table and four chairs. And with the exception of a few characters on either side – a counselor and church volunteers – there are only four characters, split into two couples: Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton); Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd). They sit in the room and talk for about an hour and a half, but even the mere act of getting them together represents unfathomable grief and profound imbalance at how that loss exists. Both couples have teen sons who died in a school shooting a few years prior, yet while Jay and Gail’s son was a victim, Richard and Linda’s was the perpetrator. An unprepared filmmaker might consider this concept and want to base the story around hard, fast emotions – either righteous anger and stubborn defensiveness, or attempts at finding an equity that might leave the characters a little bit more whole at the end. But while Krantz dabbles in the big fireworks, he doesn’t linger – he’s made a film of impressive vision, nuance, and skill. This is a story, above all else, that is racked with doubt. The loud calls for answers and justice bring little satisfaction in a tragedy so profound and sudden, which still feels, in some sense, unexplained to all these characters.
This is not to accuse the film of being incomplete; quite the opposite, in fact, as Mass has the maturity and presence of mind to live in messy spaces without the promise of a final resolution. These people know what they’ve repeated to others and in their mind over and over again ever since that devastating day, and they find little solace in saying them again. In fragments, they recall and describe loneliness beyond measure: Jay and Gail at the firehouse appointed to serve as the reunification facility and realizing that their child was never coming back, or Richard and Linda having their home overrun by police as they receive the news of not only their son’s death but what he did, and knowing that his name will never be read aloud at the memorials they will never be welcome at. Jay, in particular, wants to at least be able to supplant their loneliness with closure – to get the other couple to dig deep, find, and admit to some missing piece of the puzzle that made their son’s heinous violence obvious in hindsight. The facts of the boy’s long spiral into dangerous, antisocial behavior are well-known to them all, but Richard and Linda can’t provide that retroactive certainty to them. It doesn’t exist; warning signs could abound (and it seems they did) and as parents, they could seek all the treatment they could afford (and it seems they tried) but who expects this as the culmination?
It’s clear that such direct answers do not exist, and so the matter is dropped. But they’ll all have to leave this room eventually, go back to their own lives, and want to take something away from this. Mass doesn’t lead us on some tightly structured journey to get there, and follows the unsteady, awkward rhythms of an uncomfortable but necessary conversation. Frantz has conceived a highly difficult work as his directorial debut – hard to grapple with, to watch, and presumably to piece together – and though his otherwise careful writing and direction can sometimes become a touch florid, detached from the core of the subject matter, it’s still brought smashingly to life by Yang Hua Hu’s sharp editing, and four splendid lead actors. Their shattering performances each turn and transform over the runtime, from Isaacs’ sturdy resolve, to Plimpton’s quiet dread, to Birney’s toughened exterior, to Dowd’s inward interrogations. They know how to play against each other – what to reveal, what to wait for – and how to communicate more subtle details about their characters’ doubts and fears. While the rest of the film, in its one-room setting and heavy emotional content, can occasionally wander towards the stagey or the self-imposed, the expertise of these performances keeps the movie one of tightly-anchored intimacy. This is the story of four people who share radiating pain – neither united nor divided by it – and who hope, beyond reason or rational expectation, that if this meeting will not provide them anything else, it might let them express it, process it, or live with it in some way they haven’t been able to before.