Sometimes a film will come along like "Mass" that will remind you of the beauty of the medium. Boiled down, movies are just made up of people acting in front of a camera, but so often it becomes much more than that. Where incredibly difficult topics and complex human emotions are explored in ways that force us to confront and ponder them, and in doing so, help us cope and begin to understand them. Topics that most people just can't bare to face head-on in real life.
Many go to the movies solely for entertainment, but "Mass" is why movies are an integral part of a free society. This is a powerful, painful yet intensely therapeutic movie about two sets of parents who have so much in common, but whose lives have been irreversibly altered in ways that will forever separate them.
"Mass" is simple really, and it's simply one of the best films of the year too.
The movie begins and doesn't spoon-feed us as to where it's going. A nervous nelly (Breeda Wool) and a teenager (Kagen Albright) are preparing a room in the back of their church for what seems to be a very delicate and fragile meeting. Some sort of social worker (Michelle N. Carter), acting as an overseer, walks around investigating every last detail, approving or disapproving of various ambiances that the plain, flat room provides. She reorganizes the four chairs set out around a small table. She tells the church woman that food is not necessary, and to set the tissue box towards the back, but not right on the main table. She's concerned that the faint sounds of a piano can be heard in the distance, and that there is a scheduled choir practice at the church upcoming. She worries that some stained-glass artwork visible in the window, created presumably by the youth at the church, might be an unneeded trigger.
Finally the two couples arrive. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) have lost their child to some sort of a school shooting. Occupying the chairs across from them are Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), the parents of the mass-killer.
Like a professional dance, the rest of the movie begins to ascend, ebb and flow with somber, melodic and even hypnotic rhythm. What is at first an awkward exchange of small-talk grows into some important and - at times - explosively raw discussion. The four leads are all tremendous, each in their own ways, and the script and direction (both from new filmmaker Fran Kranz) are never preachy nor get in the way of the performances.
"Mass" boasts one of the best ensembles of the year, by far. Each of the actors are given moments in the spotlight, and each is also required to react. It's a shame to pinpoint any one of them as worthy of praise, as they all deserve it. But for me Martha Plimpton is given the most heavy-lifting, and raises "Mass" into the stratosphere.
Not only is it an intelligent, nuanced look at grief, forgiveness, parenting and humanity, it manages to steer away from any direct political motivation. This is by far not a "statement film." It asks us to ponder the tough ideology of what it must be like to lose a child in such a horrific way. It opens our eyes to the oft-overlooked anguish, regret and sorrow of not just the victims' families, but of the assailant's. It doesn't get caught up in "what could have been done to prevent this" but instead asks us the far harder question of, "what now?"
The film and its subject will stick with you long after viewing, but it's in re-thinking about the movie where I've discovered much of its subtle genius. All of the "lesser" characters that we meet at the beginning of the film have a purpose and represent something important. The social worker's business-like approach signifies the pragmatic view that institutions often have when dealing with systemic issues such as mass shootings or mental health. The nervous church woman and her interactions with the social worker reminded me of how the outside world tries - and fails - to understand the problems at hand. It's not for a lack of WANTING to understand, but many just don't know the sorrow and cannot relate or deal with it, so we treat the victims and those affected with extreme caution and with kids' gloves. Even the teenager, who is barely in the movie, seems to be more at ease with the meeting and what was going to take place...at his age, school shootings are unfortunate but they are normalized as just another every-day part of life.
And it's not lost on me either that the entirety of this movie takes place - literally and purposely - just outside of the reach and the influence of the church. It's always there, it's just around the corner, but it exists as an option for those that want it, not that it offers any answers either.
"Mass" is so straight-forward in its execution, but so much more complex than nearly most every other drama, especially those that attempt to tackle such important, often forbidden or taboo subjects. It's not an easy film to watch, but is that a requirement? Like the subjects in that room, change may never, ever happen, but if you don't make the effort, you might as well be dead already.
Run Time: 1 hour 50 minutes.
Starring: Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Reed Birney, Michelle N. Carter, Breeda Wool, Kagen Albright.
Written & Directed by Fran Kranz (feature-film directorial debut).
"Mass" is playing in limited release and opens on Friday, October 22nd, 2021.
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