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Mass (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18

MASS (2021)

Starring Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Breeda Wool, Kagen Albright, Michelle N. Carter and Campbell Spoor.

Screenplay by Fran Kranz.

Directed by Fran Kranz.

Distributed by Bleecker Street. 110 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Screened at the 2021 Philadelphia Film Festival.

In college, I had a fiction professor who said that the most difficult stories to write are ones with just a few people in a confined space, because you can’t run, you can’t hide, you can’t deflect, you can’t distract. You have focus on the subject at hand and really drill deep into the important aspects.

The majority of Mass is made up of four people together in a room talking about a very charged and emotional situation. Oh sure, a few other characters flitter in and out in the beginning and end of the film to help to lay the groundwork of what is happening, but mostly it is just these four actors laying themselves bare in a small church meeting room.

It leads to some of the finest acting you’ll see on film this year, and one of the most devastating movies I’ve seen in a long time.

The four stars here – Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton – are not huge stars, but have long been very well-respected character actors. Only Isaacs could really be considered a fairly well-known name in Hollywood, the other three are the type of actors that you know you have seen often, but you can’t really totally remember where. They disappear into their characters completely, which is an excellent quality in an actor.

Mass is arguably their finest showcase, and each and every one of them takes full advantage of the opportunity.

The storyline of Mass is as topical as it is tragic. It looks at two middle-aged couples who barely know each other and have very little in common, yet their lives had been catastrophically thrown together several years earlier. This happened when one couple’s son took a gun into school and started shooting, and the other couple’s son was one of the victims.

Jay and Gail (Isaacs and Plimpton) are the parents of the slain boy. Six years later, he has turned his pain into becoming a gun safety advocate, while she is mainly just numb much of the time. They still love and care for each other, but their relationship has turned into a clinging shared mournfulness, trying desperately to hold each other up.

Linda and Richard (Dowd and Birney) have also lost a son, and they also live with the extreme guilt of knowing that the son that they loved could be responsible for such a horrible act. They have also lost a son, too, as he killed himself as his last act on that fateful day. They appear – particularly Richard – to be a bit reserved and careful about what they say due to possible legal ramifications (although both couples signed an agreement that nothing said there could be used legally), but they too eventually allow much of their hurt and confusion to show.

It’s a powder keg of a situation and it leads to sorrow, anger, guilt, recrimination and some slight sense of healing. Each of these strong emotions are brilliantly put forward by the actors, who each have moments of devastating honestly as they try to figure out this one occurrence which had destroyed all of their lives.

Mass is the writing and directing debut of Fran Kranz, who like his stars is best known as a character actor. He had appeared in the likes of The Cabin in the Woods, The Dark Tower and Jungleland and the TV series Dollhouse. It appears that he has a whole new career waiting for him.

Interestingly, for such a politically fraught subject matter, Mass skirts much of the politics of the situation. The gun rights debate is sort of sidestepped – the gun control vs. mental health debate is briefly brought up and then moved past quickly. The characters political beliefs are also mostly left a mystery – Jay appears to be rather progressive, and Richard seems to be a conservative, but neither is in your face about it and both of the women could be either, or neither.

In the end, nothing changes. Both of the boys are still dead, for reasons that their parents can’t totally comprehend. However, Mass offers the possibility of healing, and that is a truly beautiful thing. Look for Mass to be on a lot of year-end best film lists.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: October 26, 2021.

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