Since 1970, America has had over 1,300 school shootings and gun violence is the second leading cause of death in children age 19 and under. Schools now regularly hold active shooter drills, in addition to fire drills and weather-related drills. It’s impossible to deny that school shootings are a major issue facing the United States today.
It’s also impossible to deny that it’s a sensitive topic for a film to take on. Yet, Fran Kranz’s Mass does so with delicacy and poignancy. The drama, both written and directed by Kranz, presents four parents attempting to come to terms with each other and the violence that occurred years before.
Mass is a Stunning Portrait of Grieving Parents with Four Fantastic Performances
The film begins with some church staff members prepping a room for the meeting that will take place in it. Tensions are clearly high, though it’s unclear why at first. Once the two couples arrive, the rest of the action will largely take place in this one room.
Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) come first, with Gail unsure if she can actually go through with their plans. When Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) arrive, the tension ramps up even more. The film lets the audience unravel that Jay and Gail are the parents of a son who was killed when Richard and Linda’s son opened fire at their school.
The movie is uncomfortable in many ways, with Jay’s anger brewing under the surface and Linda’s frequent teary moments. The couples have many feelings towards each other to work out, but also — perhaps more potently — feelings about themselves and the children they raised.
In many ways, Mass is a simple film with few sets and only one set of costumes. But Kranz’s genius is in that simplicity. So much of the film is spent with all four characters sitting at a table that when someone stands up, it feels monumental. And yet, everything is so emotionally charged that it’s impossible to become bored while watching it.
A lesser film might have provided flashbacks to the sons’ childhood or even to the fateful day that brought these sets of parents together, but the film holds you in the room with the two couples. It allows the audience to enter more deeply into their headspaces, but also keeps it from ever feeling exploitative of its subject matter or audience.
The film marks Kranz’s directorial debut and it’s a very impressive effort from a new director. Not only does he direct four phenomenal performances, but he knows when to lean into the weighty emotional moment and how to give the audience a brief pause from it, when needed.
Kranz’s screenplay is also to be lauded, both for the way in which it slowly reveals the truth of what happened to the audience and for its memorable lines that will stick with the audience. There are lines of dialogue that can take your breath away like, “Why do I want to know about your son? Because he killed mine.”
Yang Hua Hu’s editing must also be lauded for the ways in which it keeps the momentum flowing, without completely overwhelming its audience. There is a particular shot in the middle of an intense scene of Issacs’s that is brilliant in the way it allows the audience a moment to catch their breath.
All four central performances are so strong that it’s difficult to even identify a standout. When one person is speaking, each of the others is reacting in ways that tell you so much about their character. Because of that, the film lends itself well to subsequent viewings despite its emotional weight. All four performers also do an excellent job of showing the physical effect that this harrowing conversation has on them and they each seem transformed by the end of it.
Dowd has lots of emotional moments, including a very moving one at the very end of the film. In contrast, Birney gives the most restrained performance of the four, in arguably the most difficult role. Richard and Linda have a fascinating dynamic as a couple, and Dowd and Birney are able to give us many little clues about how what occurred with their son has affected their relationship.
Plimpton and Issacs both do an excellent job of portraying the anguish of two parents who have lost a child. Gail is perhaps the easiest character to connect with, as the mother of a boy who was killed who is searching for answers. She has several particularly stunning moments and her chemistry with Issacs is fantastic. For me, Issacs is the clear standout of the cast if I was going to pick one. His anger starts out at a simmer that builds until it finally erupts in the best acted scene that I’ve witnessed in a 2021 film.
It’s easy to become numb to the number of school shootings that occur in this country, but this film does an excellent job at showing the true loss that is associated with them. As the four parents try to figure out where to place the blame and what went wrong, the audience is given a first-hand look at them processing their pain and their grief. Mass provides a very honest look at a difficult topic from a very human perspective and is also a masterclass in acting.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.