There are few topics more galling and volatile than gun violence, no emotional terrain more ravaging than the murder of a child, and no venue more uncomfortable to explore all of the above than a small, sterile room. In a feat that is equal parts daring and frustrating, Mass centers both its narrative and its form on all three, bringing together four grieving characters in a single room and never shifting its gaze as they explore every complicated layer of their anguish. Those of us in the audience are shut in with them, flies on the wall with no open crevice through which to escape.
That spatial confinement simultaneously galvanizes the potency of the emotions expressed by the characters and inherently limits the audience’s immersion into their lives, since by its very nature the film is telling and not showing. The writing is genuine and the acting is wonderful, so it’s impossible not to be affected by such an unflinching exploration of grief’s darkest corners and most oppressive depths. It’s also nearly as impossible, however, to step inside that grief, for we are ultimately just watching people talk about it.
But oh, how that talk is wrenching, delivered by a group of actors who did have to step inside the grief of their characters, and expressing it with such a shattering first-person perspective that it’s hard not to wonder how much more powerful their stories would be if we could immerse within them. Ann Dowd and Reed Birney are on one side of the table; Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs are on the other. Both couples have come together to discuss a past tragedy that the film somewhat uncomfortably withholds until Plimpton lays everything on the table: “Why do I want to know about your son? Because he killed mine.”
What would bring these couples together to discuss something so irreconcilably contentious? The meeting was organized by an intermediary representing Dowd and Birney, whose son carried out the school shooting that killed several students before turning the gun on himself. There’s mention of a lawsuit brought forth by the parents of other victims, and though Plimpton and Isaacs chose not to join, that doesn’t mean they found a way to move past their anger and bitterness. That much is made clear in the conversation that pours forth, each of the actors sharing the burden of soliloquizing haunted memories, looming nightmares, lingering resentments, and now-futile wishes for the lives their sons could’ve led.
Writer-director Fran Kranz ably navigates the emotional complexities that link these people together. Though only one of the couples can count their son as a victim, the other also experienced a loss, having to not only deal with shock and grief but also reckon with forever being viewed as villains by proxy. Plimpton and Isaacs are left in a vicious swirl, in some ways resigned to lifelong depression yet still clinging to a desperate search for something that will make their unconscionable loss make any kind of sense. There must be some piece of information, some explanation that will settle their grief…and yet no answer can suffice.
These actors submit themselves to the emotional razorblades of this screenplay and bleed for their characters. Plimpton in particular shines – even as the screenplay delays her biggest emotional outpouring until the end, every stray gesture she exhibits opens the world of her turmoil. The acting is so good, and so at the film’s center, that Mass never feels like anything more than a deeply felt showcase for its talented performers. Kranz, himself an actor, is clearly passionate about the craft, but the precision with which he approaches this material puts a distance between the film and the audience, overwhelming even the intimacy of the chamber drama format.
That format doesn’t always work in the material’s favor. The inherent intimacy of the screen makes the drama more immediate but also highlights the formal grandiosity of the dialogue, forcing the cast to work overtime to wring natural humanity from a script of prescribed line readings. So meticulously mannered and staged is Mass that going in, I assumed it was based on a play, only to find out later it was an original piece. And it is absolutely a deeply felt one – Kranz’s empathy will serve his future projects well. But as Plimpton delivers a painful monologue about being lost in a haze of depression, about her marriage suffering because they can’t see one another past their impenetrable grief, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more powerful it would be if the film showed all of that to us.