There are few topics so sensitive in American than that of mass shootings. All too common, they plunge entire communities into a disarray of astonishment, grief, and a desperate need for answers that will likely never come. Fran Kranz, best known to me as a series of stoner characters in various genre films and series, aims to tackle at least some of these feelings in his debut feature as a director, Mass, which sees the parents of a high school shooter face to face with the parents of one of the victims. Let me tell you, folks: it’s a hell of a debut.
The parents are each played by respected and talented character actors. Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs play the parents of a boy who died at the hands of a shooter, who happened to be the son of Ann Dowd and Reed Birney’s characters. It’s years later, so rather than fresh wounds, they are deep, raw, and refusing to heal. Each of them has signed waivers to make this meeting happen, and each of them has something to prove: their son’s lives had value.
All four of them give excellent performances, with Birney and Isaacs shining in particular. Isaacs’s Jay is played as a man who seems ripped apart by both rage and empathy, while Birney’s turn as Richard is all at once off-putting and deeply felt. However, where the former is looking for some acknowledgement from the latter, the latter has been put through the wringer so much that while he seems detached at first, it’s later revealed he is perhaps permanently overwhelmed by the minute to minute account of his son’s rampage and the precise manner in which each of the victims was injured or killed.
Kranz, for a first time director, doesn’t do anything fancy with his setup. The entire film is set in a church, in a small private room where the two couples can speak uninterrupted. He doesn’t do much with the camera aside from point the camera at his players, but when you have four actors like these reciting dialogue like this, that’s all you should ever do. Focussing on the performances works wonders to bring you into their world. The way the script is written to constantly subvert expectations and shift the emotional weight of what’s happening leaves room for only one thing from the viewer: empathy for both sides.
The years-later setting makes sure of that and ensures there are no flashbacks or police reenactments, it’s just the four parents in a room talking about their sons, and it is incredibly effective, despite a few strange choices (like a cutaway shot in the middle of one of the most intense scenes in the film).
The film has no easy answers, but the truth is that there aren’t any. There’s no way for Isaacs and Plimpton’s son to be brought back. There’s no way to account for what Birney and Dowd’s son did despite her explaining in one of the more memorable speeches in the film that they never felt like bad parents and in some ways still don’t, even while acknowledging that they think they failed utterly.
If you follow my writing, you already know that I love films that feel like plays, and this movie would probably have done well as a play to start, with a minimalist set and four great actors. As it stands, maybe one day it will be, but until that time, see out and watch Mass however is safe for you to do so.
Mass is playing in select Canadian theatres now.
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