Review by David Baldwin
Years after a school shooting incident, two sets of parents — Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), and Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) — agree to sit down privately to converse, grieve and find a way to move forward.
Mass was one of the hottest films I missed during this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I finally had my chance to watch the film at last month’s Cinéfest Sudbury Film Festival and was left in a state of shock and awe by the time it ended. It may just be a film mainly comprised of four people talking in one location (very much in line with a play), but it is a riveting and necessary work that may prove to be too intense for some viewers. I had to literally pause the film and take a 10-minute break before diving back in. It really was that visceral and aggravating to watch. That is not to say that the film is bad or disappointing. Rather, it is just so deep and moving, that it bends the line between fiction and reality in ways that will affect you no matter what stage of life you are at.
In his debut feature behind the camera, Writer/Director Fran Kranz (who I best remember as Marty the stoner in the wickedly vicious satire The Cabin in the Woods) has composed an insightful and indicting look at the emotional toll a school shooting takes on the parents of those involved in it. It is simplistic by design, wisely focusing on the conversation between these parents and charting the changes in tone and body language as their discussion evolves from calm pleasantries to genuine anger and heartbreak. The performances from all four leads feel authentic, raw and genuinely lived in. You never feel like you are watching actors deliver blisteringly brilliant performances — you feel like you are watching four devastated adults do their best to explain what their lives were before and what they are now. We are never afforded the opportunity to see what happened; we only hear the horrific details and are left to visualize the event ourselves (which is easily more effective than showing it). And though they discuss their children in great detail, we are barely afforded more than a passing look at them.
For a first time Writer/Director, Kranz shows great promise with his precise movements and focal points. He knows exactly what to show and when, never letting up on the intimacy of the conversation but never feeling exploitive either. He is clearly just as frustrated as these fictional parents are, and his lack of one single explanation for what happened rings true. While he does great with his blocking and shooting within the one location, Kranz falters with his prologue. He introduces a few inconsequential characters who set what is to come, but also introduces a few ideas that he really does not need nor really comes back to. Worse, this goes on through the first twenty minutes of the film, making it feel more padded out than needed. The epilogue plays out in similar fashion, but at least lets the core cast get to be a part of what happens as opposed to being voyeurs in their own story. I was more disappointed by the opening rather than the ending, but feel like Mass could have been an even stronger masterpiece had it been more concise and edited more narrowly in these areas.
I want to say there is one single standout in this compelling, powerhouse cast, yet find it incredibly difficult to break off any piece of this incredible ensemble. Each of their performances are absolutely astounding in their own way, with each actor genuinely leaving a piece of their soul behind on screen. They are so dialed into the material that, as mentioned previously, it is hard to see what part is acting and what part is real life grief. I could not take my eyes off of any of them, and feel like they each bring something magnificent to Kranz’s story. I am tearing up just thinking about the journey they go on, full well knowing just how excruciating and unforgettable a journey it is. This is masterclass work from all four actors, and amongst the very best performances of the year. If there was a Best Ensemble Oscar, these four would win it with no effort whatsoever. Since there is not, here is hoping they all get the Supporting Actor/Actress nominations they so richly deserve.
Mass is one of this fall’s must-see films. It is emotionally eviscerating, but is necessary and unmissable. Kranz has a great future ahead of him as a Writer/Director, and these four performers deliver their best work to date. I was left reeling after the film’s conclusion and have been unable to shake some of the moments shared between them for weeks. I know it will be a challenge to watch Mass again, knowing how devastating much of the film’s content is to take in. At the same time though, I do not think there will be many films left to see this year that will match the sheer brilliance of what Kranz has composed here. Keep this one on your radar, and do not miss out.
Mass is playing in the following cities across Canada now:
Please ensure you are cautious and respect all COVID-19 protocols if you choose to see this film theatrically.