How do you deal with the aftermath of a school shooting? To deal with the loss of a child is unthinkable, in any circumstance. How would you cope if your child had been murdered by a fellow student as they stalked the corridors of their school? How could you possibly live with the knowledge that your son had carried out the atrocity before turning the gun on themselves? Could you find the courage to sit down with the parents of one of the victims and ask for understanding? Could you sit down with the parents of the perpetrator and try to find some forgiveness and closure? Fran Kranz’s claustrophobic drama asks these questions with respect and fearlessness. He doesn’t answer them. There are no answers.
Mass is filmed as one central meeting presented as a single, unbroken conversation. This is bookended by a nervously, over-zealously cheery member of the church in which it’s taking place setting up the room and starting to close up afterward. At first this seems a strange structural decision, but her obvious tension is contagious, especially as she gets increasingly tetchy during a passive-aggressive exchange with one couple’s therapist. Into that supposedly neutral environment come Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), and Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd). Noone is happy to be there, but each seems resigned, stoic even.
At first, the script keeps things terse but respectful. The two couples offer banalities, and each micro-twitch from civility is swiftly course-corrected. Eventually, the floodgates open. “Why do I want to know about your son?” snarls Gail. “Because he killed mine.” This signals a plunge into an inferno of resentment, guilt, blame, and, just maybe, an infinitesimal inch toward reconciliation. It’s a harrowing, exhausting ensemble of flayed emotion that is as gripping as any blockbuster thriller has been in years.
The structure carries echoes of Yasmina Reza‘s God of Carnage, which also features two couples dealing with the consequences of an act of aggression between children, and Kranz has an ear attuned to the ebbs and flows of a lengthy conversation, even one as catgut taut as this. However, Reza’s play employs awkward humour and a Bunuelian mischief in refusing to let its players leave the room. You ache for any hint of such levity during Mass, but it’s merciless. The blandly ecclesiastical setting is nothing but a purgatory, an emotional Somme where any small victory is liable to be entirely Pyrrhic.
But if Kranz is channelling anyone then its Ingmar Bergman. Mass has every bit of the psychological brutality of the Swede’s gruelling chamber pieces, and you could easily see a Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light-vintage Liv Ullmann and Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand and Max von Sydow round this table. Instead, Mass has a fairly mighty foursome in its own right.
Ann Dowd and Reed Birney have the tougher job as the audience’s sympathies will not naturally lie with them, but do a phenomenal job. The pair have separated. It may be implied her son’s actions tore them apart. He is defensive, she is conciliatory, desperate to please in any small way. Jay and Gail turn out to have requested the mediation. Gail’s reticence suggests he had to persuade her. He insists he’ll refrain from vindictiveness, but becomes frustrated by the inevitable failure to find logic and reason in the act. Gail is a slow fuse, mainly sullen and silent, watching through eyes puffy with resentment. All are doing stunning work. Kranz has given them a table, chairs, and a devastating script. It’s unquestionably an actors’ film.
By its nature, Mass would function perfectly as a stage play, and there is a certain theatricality in the presentation. Perhaps Kranz felt that anything flashy was simply not required. He’s right, of course, but one thinks back to what Steve McQueen achieved with a table, two chairs, and Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham for 25 minutes in Hunger, and you wonder what could have been achieved with just a little more cinematic instinct. Fran Kranz’s instincts have proved otherwise sound and his restraint has paid of in stunning, suffocating fashion.
Screened as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021