This is the third movie review I’ve written for the Spyglass, but it will be the first to be branded a “Rea Review,” a new Spyglass segment. Enjoy!
[THEMATIC SPOILERS for Mass]
“Why do I want to know about your son? Because he killed mine.”
“There were many times I wished he had killed me, too.”
Mass, the feature debut from writer-director Fran Kranz, is truly riveting. Mass, indicating the religious setting and topic of the film, follows two sets of parents – the mother and father of the victim of a school shooting (six years after the fact), and the mother and father of the shooter. With such a heavy subject matter, Mass could have easily come across as overbearing, failing to capture the sheer volatility of such a situation. However, Fran Kranz’s minimalist and dialogue-heavy nature gave way to a masterpiece – somehow surpassing the grandiose Dune and the powerful Judas and the Black Messiah to become the best film of 2021. The film is long overdue, providing a voice for students who have grown up in a world where mass shootings are the unfortunate norm.
Mass is a film with four characters talking in a single room. It is, by nature, focused around dialogue. This is where Kranz’s approach of “tell, don’t show” comes in, an approach that runs contrary to all literary teachings, but one Mass takes with few exceptions. By having characters deliver exposition and develop solely through the spoken word, Mass reads as a mystery of sorts. As we peel back the emotional layers of these people and the events that happened six years ago, a mixed feeling of awe and despair appears in our mind, crescendoing until it is almost unbearable. It is pure vulnerability; undistilled catharsis.
Do not misunderstand me, the film’s directorial flair is painfully apparent. Shaky cameras, crisp cuts, and precise pans are all applied liberally. This is in addition to an aspect ratio change, symbolizing the grief-imprisoned characters being liberated for the first time. Kranz also adds several shots of an orange ribbon on a barbed-wire fence – a nod to both the Columbine school shootings, and a metaphor for the character of Jay, who goes through an unspoken journey of forgiveness throughout the film. But while the direction is masterful, it is the acting that solidifies this movie as one of the all-time greats.
Reed Birney as Richard, the conservative and rational father of the school shooter, is fantastic. His dry, succinct tone at first makes it clear he does not want a place in this conversation. Much of the first half-hour is spent diverting blame from himself and his wife, yet there is a clear vulnerability beneath his quick-talking intonations. The subtle genius of Birney’s performance is apparent when Jay asks him “where’s your regret?” and Richard replies, “the worst outcome imaginable occured; I regret everything.” Every vocal variation in this line, every irregularity in the eyebrows is purposeful, because it is how Richard shows emotion. His explanations regarding himself and his son get longer and more emotional as the film goes on, climaxing in a brilliant monologue (one of dozens in Mass) in which Richard is reduced to tears. The pragmatic zeal of his performance is astounding.
Richard’s wife Linda, played by Ann Dowd, is exceptional. Everything she says is tainted with sincerity, almost to the point of insincerity. It is her always reaching for the tissues, who attempts to settle the situation with compassion. When Gail says she is not interrogating Richard and Linda, Linda replies “then what are you doing?” but catches herself – “and I say that as compassionately as I can; what are we doing?” Dowd’s overflow of sadness and sympathy eventually gives way to something far more human, however. Through multiple monologues, we learn that Linda is a woman of self-hatred, someone who truly despises herself: “I raised a murderer.” She tries to negate this self-loathing with compassion towards others, and eventually succeeds in the final moments of the film. Equally powerful in the first five minutes as she is in the last five, it is a performance of searing intimacy.
Jason Isaacs’s performance as Jay Perry, a man who wants to make sense of everything, is stupefying. Much of his journey is silent, yet every reaction shot of him clearly showcases both his surface emotions and his underlying feelings. He is a man who wants to make sense of everything, and has an interestingly argumentative relationship with Richard. Jay wants the answers, Richard has them, so one would think they’d get along. Yet the two agreeable personalities, in the wake of tragedy, collide violently. The second act concludes with an explosive argument. Isaacs gets many moments to shine, featuring strangled noises, guttural screams, and a barrage of tears. His final one is at once heartwarming and heartbreaking. Every expression on his face from his first appearance to his last is meticulously controlled and sculpted. And yet, his performance is also one of raw emotion and tenderness.
Lastly, Martha Plimpton as Jay’s wife Gail, who plays the mother of the boy who was shot. She plays this emotionally burdening role with exquisite ease. Kranz’s opening shot of her face tells you everything you need to know, an expression of profound pain that you must pause the film in order to entirely absorb. In her eyes, a deep listlessness bordering on death. In her cheekbones, a prison that can only be unlocked by forgiveness. The shot is somber; it is breathtakingly powerful. As if this staggering showcase of non-verbal acting wasn’t enough, she continues an absolutely grief-stricken persona throughout the film. Every cutaway and line clearly shows that despair has completely invaded her personality. In a normal film, a line like “I’m fine” would be unremarkable, in Mass it can be rewatched countless times. The strained, accidental giggle after “because he killed [my son]” is the kind of subtle acting that even the best of actors struggle to perfect. Plimpton does so without skipping a beat. And the moment when she is set free, able to forgive, is simply brilliant.
Unfortunately, even the masterful Mass has its issues. Fran Kranz made the odd decision to spend the first ten minutes with church volunteers setting up the meeting, an awkward comedy of sorts, essentially “no, put the chair there, not there.” It’s clear what Kranz was going for, building atmospheric tension and foreshadowing the events to come, but the characters are so uninteresting that the decision to include this footage is nonsensical. The final ten minutes are also spent with these characters, but since our primary cast members are there, it works much better. Regardless, Mass is my favorite film of the year. The screenplay is full of powerful emotion and exemplary dialogue, the direction is quiet yet scrupulous, and the ensemble is likely one of the best ensembles in all of cinema. It is up there with such masterpieces as 12 Angry Men and Rope as one of the best chamber pieces of all time. Mass is one of the most criminally obscure and underwatched films of the year, and it should be everyone’s aim to change that. Everyone interested in this film, watch Mass as soon as possible, and spread the word.
I will award Mass 8 stars on the “Rea-ting” system: a masterful, tragic dialogue that came close to perfection.