Aftermath of a violent tragedy that affects the lives of two couples in different ways.
In South Africa in the mid-90s, shortly after the end of the apartheid era, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TCR) was set up with the purpose of providing an open forum for victims and perpetrators of violence to come together and talk about their experiences with the aim of reconciliation. In modern day America, a similar exercise has started to take place to deal with those affected by school shootings, a sadly more regular occurrence than you would hope. ‘Mass’ is a film about this process, a detailed and in depth character study of 4 people coming to terms with a tragic event of monumental proportions that is almost impossible to recover from. It’s the feature debut from Fran Kranz (better known as an actor), who also wrote the screenplay after taking a keen interest in this topic after studying apartheid in his younger years.
Apart from short bookends, ‘Mass’ takes place entirely within one room below a church, where four individuals gather to have a discussion. They are Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), who are the parents of a school shooting victim, and Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd), who are the parents of the perpetrator. All are grieving and have been impacted in different ways, and want to use this process to help to heal themselves. If the setup sounds a little stagey you shouldn’t worry. Whilst ‘Mass’ would work incredibly well in theatre, I found it so gripping and immersive that the (mostly) one room setting didn’t detract from it at all. If anything, it’s vital for the story the movie is trying to tell that these characters are shut away together. It’s helped by smart directing choices from Kranz who uses the space available to him to enhance his story, with every choice down to where the characters are seated or standing at particular points or where the tissues are placed important to the way the story is played out.
The writing is so incredibly sharp and well observed that you can’t believe that such a mature and haunting look into human pain and grief has came from a first-timer. It would be really easy for a film such as this to slip into melodrama and overplay its hand, but there’s a remarkable restraint here from both Kranz and his actors, who play this out as a realistic and raw depiction of the toll such an event can take on people. A big part of its success has to go to its actors, four character actors who have impressed in other things but collectively may have produced their best work here. They all get a big moment to shine each, and in other hands this may feel like the ‘Oscar’ winning monologue, but here it feels like an authentic release of six years of pain, frustration and anger.
‘Mass’ is not the easiest watch given its harrowing subject matter, but it remains compelling through the superbly written script and the wonderfully detailed performances from its ensemble, and by the end its almost cathartic – as much for the audience as it is for the characters.
Directed By: Fran Kranz
Starring: Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Breeda Wool, Kagen Albright and Michelle N. Carter