THE STORY – Imagine the most dreaded, tense, and emotionally draining interaction you could find yourself in and multiply it by 10. That is exactly what two sets of parents—Richard (Reed Birney), Linda (Ann Dowd), Jay (Jason Isaacs), and Gail (Martha Plimpton)—are facing. Years after a tragedy caused by Richard and Linda’s son tore all their lives apart, Jay and Gail are finally ready to talk in an attempt to move forward.
THE CAST – Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton & Reed Birney
THE TEAM – Fran Kranz (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
“We’re not going to apologize for our feelings.”
There are certain discussions that we are not privy to unless we participate in them ourselves. “Mass” invites us into the most horrible and dreaded of discussions between four parents dealing with unimaginable grief and tragedy. Whenever there is a mass shooting in our country, politicians often say, “Now is not the time to talk about it.” Fran Kranz (“The Cabin In The Woods”) forces us to watch these four grieving parents talk about their respective deceased children, their collective torment and search for answers so that they can make sense of what transpired, if any.
Judy (Breeda Wool) is preparing a brightly lit back room at a church. She is meticulous in her setup, choosing where to place the chairs at a table, the placement of the tissue box, whether or not there should be food in the room and all under the supervision of a lawyer. That’s because, in a few moments, four parents will be entering the room to have a difficult talk that has been six years in the making. It’s the only bit of dark comedy we get in this somber drama as we begin to understand why the four parents are meeting.
Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) pull up to the church in their car. Gail does not believe she will be able to get through what the married couple is about to go through. She does not think she will be able to grant forgiveness to the parents of the man who killed her son in a mass school shooting. When the shooter’s parents arrive, Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), the four of them try to be polite and civil with one another at first but years of frustration, anger and sadness are finally allowed to come out into the open in a constructive and open way. They discuss how they each arrived to the location, how their surviving kids are doing but once the small talk wears out, there’s nothing left to do but do what they all came there to do.
Kranz makes his directorial and screenwriting debut with an emotional powerhouse of a film that asks the toughest of questions and never gives easy explanations. Taking place in realtime, in a single location, the conversation between the four parents is riveting, tense and honest as it produces a tremendous amount of empathy. His camera is mostly static, with only a few pans here and there but then, it suddenly starts to de-stabilize once the conversation starts to spiral out of control despite the characters’ intentions to not attack or interrogate each other but to seek understanding and, hopefully, a way to move forward from this six-year-long process. The tension is so strong that it can be cut with a knife and when the deliberate editing by Yang-Hua Hu does exactly just that with two well-placed jump cuts, the results took my breath away and alleviated all of the pent up pain I had built up in my body. Franz knows exactly when to cut to another actor at the table in order to keep the conversation moving and compelling, even though they’re sitting down most of the time.
The performances in this from Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney are the kind of dramatic performances that actors dream of playing. Constructed like a play, they all go through their own individual character arcs and each brings their own distinctively written characters to vivid life, allowing our empathy to latch onto each of them instead of just a portion of the group. Jason Isaacs has never been this raw before as he starts off calm and as the voice of reason but is brimming beneath the surface with boiling rage. Ann Dowd’s compassion knows no boundaries even when it irks Marth Plimpton’s Gail. I can’t recall a single frame of this movie where Dowd did not have tears in her eyes. She’s always good in everything she does but all four actors really hit a new career-peak here. Plimpton starts off internalizing all of her emotions but gradually opens up the longer the conversation goes on, until her tremendous cathartic scene at the end. And Reed Birney has maybe the most difficult role of the four as the man who is so clinical and clam in his answers to Jay and Gail. Yet, he chooses his moments of when to show Richard’s humanity skillfully so that we never villanize him or anyone else in the group. There are no heroes here, only victims. All four of their lives have forever been shattered. And all four actors deserve to be showered with praise for their heartbreaking performances. Their work left me absolutely devastated in a puddle of tears and dare I say, even changed by the whole experience once it was over.
The writing feels incredibly organic as it not only brilliantly deconstructs America’s gun problem (only briefing touching on the political side of the issue) but it also fully deconstructs each parent’s personal anguish. They’re constantly apologizing to one another, trying to be open about their feelings without escalating the situation. It is a testament to Kranz’s ability as a storyteller that he finds a way to guide his characters and his audience from resentment to reconciliation in a way that feels believable. Even if Richard and Linda give Jay and Gail everything, the four of them will still never be able to know everything but Franz comes very close and that might just be a miracle in it of itself.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – An overwhelmingly emotional experience. Smartly written. Brilliantly performed. Carefully executed. A masterclass in dramatic storytelling.
THE BAD – Such a hotly debated topic will be triggering from some audience members who no matter what, will not agree with everything the script has to say on the issue. Can feel overlong by the end as we’re gasping for air so we can release the tension in our bodies.