Fran Kranz made a breakthrough performance as the amusing stoner in the meta horror movie Cabin in the Woods. Now a new chapter in Kranz’s career has triumphantly begun with his quiet, confident, and devastating feature writing and directorial debut Mass.
Mass takes its time digging into intimate drama, slowly ramping up its tension and trepidation. But as the story unfolds across pages of gut-wrenching, emotional dialogue, four parents confront the trauma and grief of the tragedy that connects each of their kids and upended all of their lives.
The first 15 minutes of Mass follows an eager-to-please, kind red-haired woman as she’s preparing a room inside of an Episcopal church for some kind of meeting. She’s meticulous about making sure everything is perfectly comfortable, and the careful planning becomes even more particular when some kind of mediator comes in to inspect where the meeting will be taking place. It might seem like pointless tire-spinning, but it all makes sense when the people this room is intended for arrive.
Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs) arrive after taking a short detour from this carefully plotted setting, both clearly uneasy about what’s about to happen. That same hesitation comes from Linda (Ann Dowd), but a little less so from her (ex?) husband Richard (Reed Birney), who simply doesn’t look happy to be there. When the two couples greet each other, there’s a palpable tension as Gail shows Linda and Richard a forced smile, her tight body language and short, barely-polite responses indicating that she dreads what’s about to unfold. Everyone moves cautiously and carefully, as if the room will explode at any minute.
If you can’t tell, Kranz doesn’t play the script’s cards all at once, instead letting the audience slowly learn what has brought these two couples together: Gail and Jay’s son Evan was killed by Linda and Richard’s son Hayden in a school shooting that happened some time ago. This isn’t the first time these parents have met since the incident, as all the legal proceedings have been taken care of and all the details of the tragic day are known. These four are here so that they can finally try to move on.
Volumes are spoken in the way that each of these parents desperately try not to upset each other, but the tension eventually boils over, resulting in varied waves of sadness and hostility. Even more is said in the silence between them, and there are several instances where all the sound seems to be sucked out of the room, allowing everyone to recover from the continued animosity. Every single one of these four performances is full of heartbreaking anguish, and it keeps the nearly two-hour runtime from slogging, even if the movie can feel repetitive at times.
Incredibly, Mass isn’t adapted from a play, despite the fact that the entire story unfolds in this single location with ample dialogue. Kranz (and perhaps moreso the performances) still manage to make this engrossing, even as it’s mostly comprised of simple shots of each of the actors. He lets the actors do the heavy lifting as he lets the camera sit behind each of the couples, slowly panning back and forth between each parent and often lingering at just the right times to catch the subtleties of their angst. I can’t be adamant enough about how riveting and afflicting all of these performances are.
Even more impressive is that Kranz is able to approach this incendiary subject without injecting much political content. Sure, there’s some chastisement and a very brief debate about gun control with some mocking of the hollowness of “thoughts and prayers.” But 99% of the film centers on the trauma that both sets of these parents have already gone through and continue to hash out in this fantastically scripted feature.
However, this isn’t just about the victim’s parents being held accountable for the tragedy, though there’s plenty of discussion about that. It’s also about addressing the suffering and grief that comes from being the parents of the shooter. They’re forced to question every decision they’ve ever made as a parent without being able to mourn their son. Despite the monstrous atrocity that he brought upon this couple and nine other families, these parents loved their son, and not only are they unable to mourn him without being held under great scrutiny, but they also feel the weight of the deaths of all the children he killed. It’s an aspect of these nightmares that many people have probably never considered, and it’s handled carefully and thoughtfully without ever being sympathetic to the killer.
Mass is a masterful directorial debut for Fran Kranz, and though I hesitate to make such claims when the current awards season isn’t even over yet, I could see this movie being a serious Oscar contender when the time comes.
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