Sundance 2021

Mass review – a powerful and harrowing study of grief

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton are phenomenal in director Fran Kranz's debut drama about the aftermath of a school shooting

It is far too easy to read over the details and speculations surrounding any number of mass school shootings in the US. The whole world can zoom in on the chronology of the tragedy, but seldom does the camera linger on the grief, the desperate emptiness of those who have been left behind.

Dollhouse actor Fran Kranz makes his debut as a writer-director with Mass, a stark and harrowing showcase of the pain and guilt between two sets of parents dealing with the traumatic years after the fact: Jay and Gail’s son was killed, Richard and Linda’s son was the shooter.

The two couples are meeting in a conference room in a local church to finally speak to what happened head-on. Kranz allows the scene play out in real time, as the conversation unspools in its entirety: small talk and plant exchanges give way to searing confessions and accusations, and all the messy and impossible questions and thoughts that come in between.

It’s an acting showcase like none other – one that naturally carries the entire film. Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton play Jay and Gail, their debilitating grief, almost numb with yearning, goes from guarded and polite to corrosive as the conversation eventually becomes a lot less polite. Plimpton in particular is astonishing: no melodrama or excess, but enough of a force of nature to shatter every window in the room.

As Richard and Linda, Reed Birney and Ann Dowd deal with the more contradictory devastation that comes with the guilt and confusion of the person you’ve raised committing the most unforgivable act, while still processing the fact that you once loved them more than anything in the world. Birney is chilly, almost clinical, well aware of the questions and insults the couple opposite them might have. Dowd is, as ever, impossibly good: she bottles the contradictions of a loving, cautious mother and the woman who raised a murder with heartbreaking vulnerability.

On paper, the dialogue-heavy Mass could have been a stage play, and so might have suffered from some kind of sterility on screen, merely watching the back and forth between these four people in this beige room. But Kranz and his actors have struck gold: there’s a fire burning, a sense of electricity coursing through the stares of every parent, which gives the silences all the more weight whenever the words stop. In the rare cutaways to a world that, against all odds, is still spinning, we watch the specks of dust sparkle in the air of the room, and notice how the wind gently sways in the tall grass outside.

There are thankfully no distasteful flashbacks or vulgar dramatisations of the details of the events. Mass is more careful than that, and more surprising: you know what a conversation, a confrontation looks like. You know the beats, the staging, the reasoning. What we get instead is something singularly affecting, a glimpse behind the curtain at the intricacies of the fallout that rarely make the headlines. It takes extreme sensitivity to do a subject like this justice, to give the audience something that's moving but also distinctly true. Mass is never easy – but that's the point.

Mass was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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