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‘Mass’ Review: A Quietly Devastating, Deeply Raw Exploration of Grief

Dir. Fran Kranz — 4.5 Stars

"Mass," directed by Fran Kranz.
"Mass," directed by Fran Kranz. By Courtesy of Bleecker Street
By Connor C. Riordan, Contributing Writer

“You think you can attach one word to something in order to understand it? To make you feel safe?”

These words come halfway through Fran Kranz’s directorial debut, “Mass,” a quietly devastating, superbly acted film that details the meeting between the parents of a school shooting victim and the parents of the shooter. This line, spoken by the father of the shooter, strikes at the heart of the film, which emphasizes that there are no easy answers to be found in the aftermath of such a tragedy — and hindsight doesn’t always make things clearer.

Kranz is best known for his acting, playing roles such as Marty in “The Cabin in the Woods” and Claudio in “Much Ado About Nothing.” He both wrote and directed “Mass,” which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival this past January. It’s a film that veteran writer-directors would be proud to have on their resume, and announces Kranz as a deftly talented filmmaker with an exciting future.

The film opens on a wide shot of a grand church. Judy (Breeda Wool), who works at the church, pulls up and enters. From there, we’re quickly introduced to Anthony (Kagen Albright), a teenage volunteer, and Kendra (Michelle N. Carter), who works with two of the parents. They don’t do anything particularly exciting – they set up a table and discuss logistics – but the audience is hooked by Kranz’s directorial decisions. Kranz foregoes music and fancy camerawork, instead using long, static shots and solely diegetic sound, which he maintains for most of the film. He lets this eerie stillness and the fantastic dialogue drive the tension, relying as much on the information he leaves out as what he includes. We are never told outright what is happening, but the tightness in the characters’ bodies and the delicate verbal dance they perform grabs our attention and keeps us on uneven footing.

The audience is then introduced to the parents of the victim, Jay and Gail Perry, played to perfection by Jason Isaacs (“Harry Potter”) and Martha Plimpton (“The Goonies”). They are on-edge, weather-beaten, careworn, and unsure. Soon the parents of the shooter, Linda and Richard, brought to life by masterful performances from Ann Dowd (“Hereditary”) and Reed Birney (“House of Cards”), arrive. Nearly 20 minutes after the film has started, the parents are finally left alone, wrestling with Kendra’s parting words: “I’m hopeful that we all think that this was a good thing to do by the time we leave here today.”

The conversation that follows is often difficult to get through, both for the characters on screen and the audience. It’s soon revealed that the shooting happened six years ago, and the parents have been dealing with its aftermath ever since. To say more would rob future viewers of the impact of their exchange. This is a huge credit to Kranz’s screenplay, which traverses tricky terrain with skill and empathy, never glossing over the most devastating aspects of the shooting, nor using it for spectacle or shock value. The characters fumble with their words, they backtrack and stutter, and they jump through stories and interrupt each other — mimicking the halting and dissonant nature of real speech and adding another layer of realism to already tangible performances.

Kranz’s directing is simple, with the camera lingering on a medium two- or four-shot of the characters, maintaining an uncomfortable, inescapable intimacy between the audience, the characters, and the events they’re dissecting. When the camera eventually transitions to handheld, the subtle sway heightens the tension of the scenes. The one unfortunate decision Kranz makes is during the most emotional scene of the film, when the camera suddenly cuts out of the room to an earlier shot of the countryside. For a film so invested in immersion, it’s an abrupt and startling decision that dulls the impact of the scene.

The film’s performances are outstanding. Each of the four actors gives an understated and heart-rending performance that never wavers. Jason Isaacs, in particular, stands out for his depiction of a father ravaged by grief. Whether or not the audience completely agrees with what the characters say, the actors embody their characters so well that it’s impossible not to see the validity of their emotions.

At about the hour and a half mark, it seems that the movie has reached its clean-cut, cathartic conclusion — and then it continues for another twenty minutes as the characters leave the church. It’s a risky but admirable choice by Kranz that ultimately elevates the film. With such events, there is no “clean” solution, no moment of emotional catharsis that heals past trauma. What’s lost is lost. And in the end, audiences may find themselves empathizing with the family of the shooter nearly as much as with the family of the victim. In one of the film’s most powerful monologues, Linda tearfully exclaims, “And the truth is, we believed we were good parents. And in some awful, confusing way, we still do.”

“Mass” isn’t a story of sides. It’s a story of confusion, trauma, and uncertainty. It shows how the heinous actions of one person don’t have to define the people they were close to. It shows how the past can define the present, and how to move forward in spite of that.

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