Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Bleecker Street releases the film in theaters on Friday, October 8.
A single-location drama about four people sitting in a sterile church anteroom and discussing — at length, and in real-time — the unequally shared tragedy that split their lives down the middle, “Mass” is so anti-cinematic at every turn that it almost comes as a surprise that it wasn’t adapted from a play or shot during COVID. And yet, at no point does this sobering and worthwhile feature debut from actor Fran Kranz (“The Cabin in the Woods”) feel like it shouldn’t have been a movie, or that it could’ve been anything else.
The biggest reason for that is easy to appreciate, but hard to explain. It doesn’t have much to do with the pall created by the hallowed yet mundane setting, or the powerful close-ups that Kranz uses to punctuate the second half of this story. No, it stems more from the true sense of privacy that only a movie can provide; an illusion for us watching at home, but a real and galvanizing force in the fabric of the film itself. Privacy is inextricable from its most basic premise.
Kranz isn’t in a hurry to put all his cards on the table and reveal the particulars of his plot, and his decision to include a seemingly needless prologue only makes sense in hindsight. The first 10 or 15 minutes of “Mass” are laser-focused on the woman in charge of an Episcopal church in the Midwest somewhere as she anxiously prepares a bland room in the back for the sensitive meeting that will soon happen there. She frets over the smallest details as if she’s expecting the Pope to show up, paying special attention to the noise from the choir practice that’s happening in the chapel upstairs and taking great pains to ensure that whatever event that’s about to take place can be held in absolute silence, and without any kind of outside disturbance. A mediator even shows up to review the protective bubble, assessing the space’s emotional readiness the same way that the Secret Service sweep through a building before the President arrives.
It’s only then that the primary cast shows up: Two nondescript couples who are left alone in that quiet white chamber for as long as it takes to do… whatever it is they’ve come to do. There are only so many reasons why four middle-aged American civilians would have to meet this way or have so much unresolved pain in the air between them, but no one is in a hurry to state the obvious. On one side of the room you have Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs, who make for an arrestingly vulnerable couple). On the other: Richard (Reed Birney), who carries himself like a CPA who seems like he’d rather be doing taxes somewhere, and Linda (Ann Dowd in full “Hereditary” mode), whose voice quavers with the mollifying softness of a spirit healer or someone who’s leading a séance to commune with an ancient darkness. Her sincerity is either all-consuming or a sinister costume, and “Mass” has its hooks in you from the moment you start to wonder about the various agendas at work here.
Things eventually cohere into view, as Franz’s script does a fine and believable job of tip-toeing towards the meat of the issue without clumsy exposition or labored obfuscation. There was a school shooting some years ago; Richard and Linda’s kid was the killer, while Gail and Jay’s son was one of the victims. Most people who find their way to this movie will probably know that much by the time they see it, but “Mass” — like the church service suggested by one reading of its title — is less interested in plot than process. While Kranz was inspired by the Parkland shooting, this isn’t a film about what causes school shootings (guns), or what might prevent them (fewer guns). It’s a difficult but absorbingly intimate film about what happens to the soul of a country where indiscriminate death has been allowed to become a part of life, and how the survivors work to share the burden that all of them have to carry for someone else’s sins.
One particularly smart decision that Kranz makes is to make clear that these characters have made efforts to communicate with each other since the horrible incident that forever welded them together, and so their meeting isn’t hung up on information. It’s common knowledge that Richard and Linda’s son had trouble adjusting to his new school, and that he pushed his parents away at the same time as he found solace in new hobbies. The various investigations that followed the murder spree have also been committed to memory, and so these people are also bound by an obsessive, minute-by-minute knowledge of what happened that day.
In other words, they haven’t come here to learn anything. This isn’t a trial, or a film gripped by the futile compulsion to make sense of a massacre (though Jay, suffering through a violent war of attrition between his natural empathy and his unnatural loss, can’t help but strain for answers that aren’t there). Justice isn’t relevant here, only a pursuit of the grace that our punitive society has conditioned us to mistake for surrender. “Mass” isn’t an overtly religious film by any stretch of the imagination, but its sterile aesthetic — augmented by too-crisp digital cinematography, static camerawork, and the general ambiance of a trip to the D.M.V. — belies the spirituality of its setting in a way that reflects the disconnect between the theory and practice and forgiveness.
Kranz’s direction may not be flashy enough to earn him a spot on Marvel’s shortlist, but the careful balance that he strikes between the movie’s four lead performances reflects a natural confidence behind the camera. You can see it in the way that Isaacs and Plimpton constantly try to break the olive branch they’re ostensibly there to offer; the memory of their son is so enmeshed with the trauma of his death that any attempt at healing seems to risk a new measure of loss. Also effective is how Kranz manipulates our sympathies in order to stunt our judgment.
This mercifully reserved film is light on big moments, but Dowd aces its riskiest and most vulnerable monologue, as Linda offers a nuanced and all-too-human defense that the court of public opinion would never abide. “The truth is we believed we were good parents,” she confesses, “and in some awful, disturbing way, we still do.” The world would like her to believe that her son’s life had no value because of the heinous way he chose to end it, but the truth is never that simple. But it’s Birney — the film’s least recognizable actor tasked with playing its least likeable character — who emerges as the MVP before all is said and done, as it’s Richard who ultimately sells us on the fact that some things are possible in this room that would be impossible anywhere else.
Kranz himself seems to struggle with that veil of privacy from time to time. In one instance, he suddenly cuts away from the church at its most heated moment, as if trying to preserve an element of mystery even though every unhelpful look at the highway outside punctures the film’s atmosphere, and elides the difficult transitions that make the conversation feel so pressurized. It’s a crutch that Kranz relies on more frequently as the film goes on, and one that makes its eventual catharsis feel more rushed than it should; it’s as if he’s straining to remind us that we’re eavesdropping on a conversation that’s only happening under the pretense that no one is there to witness it. It’s a belabored point, but also one that the film is understandably desperate to make. In a country where trauma is gradually becoming more of a spectacle, healing is something that’s only getting harder for people to see.
“Mass” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section.
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