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Sundance 2021 Review: 'Mass' doesn't fear the heavy conversations

Fran Kranz's 'Mass' opens the channel for a dialogue between two pairs of grieving parents mourning the same tragedy from wholly opposing perspectives...so the scenario initially presumes.

Confronting the worst in 'Mass.'
(Image: © Sundance Institute)

Our Verdict

'Mass' lacks an authentic amount of composure that befits the compassionate confrontation Fran Kranz so expertly mediates in his open wound of a fantastic feature debut.

For

  • ⛪ Every. Single. Actor.
  • ⛪ Dialogue that's allowed to get lost in emotions.
  • ⛪ Filmmaking at its most intimate.
  • ⛪ Power in performances.

Against

  • ⛪ Reliant on minimalism.
  • ⛪ Might not be what some want to hear.

Mass is part of our Sundance Film Festival 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

In Mass, writer and director Fran Kranz isolates insurmountable intimacy through a parade of conversational haymakers. A chapel's multi-purpose room, four folding chairs, a wooden crucifix, and some water bottles. That's all the "stoner from Cabin In The Woods" needs to steamroll audiences with an overwhelming conversation about empathy, forgiveness, and parenthood. A trigger warning exists, no doubt, since Kranz's minimalist indie drama is a facilitated dialogue in the aftermath of another student-on-classmate school shooting. Never a movie that cheaply wields hate or accusations; always a gut-wrenching experience about finding the words - the tolerance, the compassion - to say what no prose can completely describe yet finally be heard, and understood, by those once presumed to be enemies.

Husband Jay (Jason Isaacs) and spouse Gail (Martha Plimpton) arrive at a quaint suburban church and shuffle into a spacious-enough meeting room. Soon after, organizer Kendra (Michelle N. Carter) ushers in Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), the latter of which presents a homemade floral arrangement; a sympathetic gesture. Gail expresses gratitude, but the air is thick with discomfort and tension. Kendra exits, granting the group privacy out of respect. Jay, Gail, Richard, and Linda begin with awkward small talk, but their interactions cut to the event's objective before long. Richard and Linda's son, Hayden, murdered Jay and Gail's son, Evan, along with nine other victims in a premeditated classroom attack, and if there's ever a chance for closure, it's now.

The vulnerability, the rawness, the emotional exhaustion throughout Mass builds inside a chamber that feels like it could burst with any offhand misspoken retort. Kranz's minimalism centers the conversation in a single location, with the density of immeasurable, agonizing thoughts weighing down a cheap plastic folding table. At no point does Mass deviate from being an impossibly moving character piece, resting on the shoulders of four actors asked to parse out reflections, insistences, and questions that have no textbook answer. It's an exploration that could easily have torpedoed itself on themes alone, and yet the bare-all connections Kranz's script fosters are unforgettable. Every performance pitch-perfect. Every cascading teardrop, admissive plea, and choked response earnest.

Kranz fearlessly dares to expose the collaborative beauty in an otherwise devastating, worst-case scenario, never allowing his characters to calm but still permitting them to seek peace. Years have passed, depositions recorded, news media spun; the parents convene at a crucial moment where Jay and Gail demand something, but darting eyes confirm no one quite knows what. Jay hammers on notions of psychological diagnostics to at least conclude a quantifiable, classifiable cause. Gail hopes to honor a selfless promise that'd confirm Evan's death meaningful. Linda struggles to discern the killer from her baby, and Richard fields accusations of appearing too complacent. Although, Mass is never a brawl-out, vindictive pay-per-view bout. Kranz so magnificently avoids separating validity between warring sides, as he instead champions the healing power of passionate yet shared tormentors versus the suffering we indulge alone.

It's the intimacy of boxy settings, of character relations, that allows Jason Isaacs to silence a theater by slamming his fist or send a shiver as Ann Dowd's Linda questions how her life was still bettered by Hayden's birth, even in somber hindsight. Martha Plimpton's begrudging mother Gail shares photos of Evan, of their hokey last Christmas portrait, and retreats into her shell when Dowd trumps her sadness by breaking out into tears. Reed Birney as Richard comes off callous at first, matter-of-fact, until Jay starts shouting the gory, time-coded details of his son's assassination, only to be met by Richard's counter of listing every victim, the timecodes, and the spiritual gravestones he retains in memory alongside Hayden's. Kranz's screenplay demands characters vent their grievances and grapple with the ungraspable, but never from a place of pure spite or heated amplification, like, say, a swung fist. Nor is it numbingly schmaltzy or lost within kiss-and-make-up de-escalation that'd insult or ignore the sloppy complexity of grief.

Mass is a profoundly moving ode to communicative empathies that become lost when relying on intermediaries, social media, or outlets with biases. Fran Kranz removes those obstacles and ponders if two pairs of adults can enter such an engagement as presented and attempt reconciliation, what's stopping the rest of us? With less invested actors (an ensemble that delivers a tender, sorrowful indie masterclass), less meticulous development that'd fail to balance everyone's dwelling demons without falling victim to an incendiary blame game, there'd be massive issues with the film's intentions. As is? Kranz and Mass' troupe create one of the more fearless, intense (think Marriage Story's wall punch), and heartbreakingly resonant American tales of recent memory down to gun violence and institutionalized shortcomings. A movie that'll make your hugs squeeze a little tighter and words carry more significance once it concludes.