Mass (2021) Review

Slight spoilers ahead, but nothing you wouldn’t find on the film’s Wikipedia page.

Mass is a 2021 film directed by Fran Kranz in his directorial debut, which he also wrote the original screenplay for. It stars Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton as two grieving families on opposite ends of a tragedy who come together to heal and discuss the events that irreparably changed their lives forever – a school shooting. Jay and Gail are the parents of the victim, while Linda and Richard are the parents of the shooter, who took his own life that same day.

I had been excited for Mass ever since its Sundance debut which praised the performances, writing, and overall emotional resonance which are three key things that I really look for in films. Plus, I’m a huge fan of the actors present and it seemed like an acting vehicle first and foremost which did intrigue me.

I watch a great deal of films daily, some are incredible, some are good, and some I never think about again.

Mass is a film I’ll be thinking about for a very, very long time.

It’s just under two hours of pure, gut-wrenching humanity. Kranz keeps things very simple for his debut; most of the drama takes place in this one room, organised to perfection by the people who work there. The four main characters gather around a table and just have a very charged conversation about the tragedies they’ve suffered. This sounded initially like something that could’ve been more of a stage play script and had loud, powerful performances about grief and anguish projected to the back row of a colossal theatre to a sold-out crowd eight times a week.

I am very glad this was a film. Don’t get me wrong, there are some theatrical elements to it that would be incredible on the stage, but Kranz directs this very capably, using the intimacy of the room to create quite a claustrophobic feeling. His blocking is so precise, the camera movements so specifically chosen to create each desired effect. With four important characters in each sequence of the film, it would’ve undoubtedly been hard to choose who to linger on for each shot because every decision tells us so much about the layers behind the story. Kranz knows how to get the emotions going here, even messing with aspect ratio at one point to really seal us into the tragic lives of these characters.

Everything else is really very simple. The production design is quite minimal aside from some paintings and a cross that hangs in the background, the costumes are bare, casual, and don’t distract from the important story at heart. The shot styles switch from mid-shots to close-ups at points and it all really hinges on what’s happening in each moment. These elements get their jobs done just fine, nothing exemplary, but it doesn’t need to be.

The real glory here, as I’ve mentioned, is the four characters at the root of the film and the actors who embody them. Let’s talk about them, because they all have something different yet equally brilliant to bring to the table. Literally. For the sake of ease, let’s go in alphabetical order.

Reed Birney plays Richard, the father of the shooter, and it would be very easy to dismiss his role and performance as the lesser of the four due to its nature, but that’s primarily the whole point. Richard is the straight-talking, matter-of-fact problem solver of the quartet. He provides information, answers questions, and is able to lay out his points of view seemingly without being skewed by bias or overwhelmed by emotion. Birney plays this expertly. His skilled balance of blunt delivery with worlds of held-back emotions behind his eyes and in the echo of his voice make this not just a simple performance. He’s doing a lot more than you might think upon first impression. I initially sort of wrote him off, but there are many times where the actor and character return to surprise the hell out of me and demand my attention. He might not be as openly emotional as the others, but there’s a weight on him through almost the entire film that presses on him and he’s able to just dismiss it. I haven’t seen as much praise for Birney as the other members of the cast and while that’s certainly understandable, I’d hate for him to be written off because he is doing absolutely incredible work with his material.

Right then, let’s talk about Ann Dowd. I’ve been a huge fan of Ann Dowd ever since I saw her in 2012’s hidden gem Compliance, and then became obsessed with her during her tenure on HBO’s The Leftovers. When she finally got her flowers in The Handmaid’s Tale (more terrific work from her by the way) I was so proud and excited for her. Mass doubles down on her talent and the results are phenomenal. Personally, I think her role was the most difficult to nail. She’s playing Linda, mother of the shooter and she has to do a lot of different things. Her gentle nature and soft delivery offset her deep anguish, you can see and feel the pain in everything she says, there’s a believability to her that really commands your respect and your tears. She never really ‘breaks down’ as you might expect a woman in this situation to, there’s an incredible strength to Linda that’s a testament to both Dowd and Kranz’ scriptwriting. Dowd handles everything in her role with aplomb and I cannot praise her performance enough. There’s a speech she has near the end that absolutely wrecked me. There’s so much depth to her that I got lost in her performance so many times. She creates entire histories, backstories, lives in all of her characters and Linda is no different to any of them. She is astounding.

Jason Isaacs, man.

Isaacs plays Jay, the father of the shooting victim, and this role is complex. At first I thought it was going to be a little like Birney’s, that sort of stoic, ‘let’s get things done’ sort of guy but the film develops Jay into something much, much more than that. Isaacs is truly alive in this role at all times and grounds Jay in so much truth and honesty that I found myself searching his expressive eyes to find answers to questions that weren’t even being asked. Like Dowd, there’s much depth to this performance, particularly coming alive in the middle section of the film where Isaacs takes control of the conversation and delivers some of the most powerful moments of acting I’ve seen in a long time. And also, very subtly, a moment near the end which had me replacing the tears that Dowd had created not minutes ago. He is nothing short of exceptional and I think he gives my favourite performance of the year so far. A career-best for sure and one that I’ll be singing praises for to anyone and everyone that I possibly can. He blew me away with how multi-faceted this was and I am beyond stunned and impressed.

Last but very, very certainly not the least is Martha Plimpton as Gail, the mother of the shooting victim. I’ll be honest; I mostly know Plimpton from her Emmy-winning turn on The Good Wife but I’ve always known that she can act.

Mass is something I’d never have thought to see Plimpton in, but it’s clear now that I’ve been doing her a disservice because this was revelatory for me. I want to seek out more of her work because my goodness she’s incredible in this. You can tell right from her first shot that she’s doing marvellous work. She carries a weight around with her until a certain point in the story like the others does, but you can physically see it lift from her body that was previously so tightly wound and fraught through a lot of the conversation. Like the others, there are no screaming and crying scenes, no massive shouting moments, but Plimpton manages to carry her grief and her pain in every moment, every movement. Every line of dialogue she utters feels like it’s raw, like it’s coming from such a deep place within her, discussing something that she’s not quite ready to talk about, if she ever will be ready. There’s a moment where she’s telling a story and my jaw was hanging open the entire time, I’m not kidding. It’s a deeply skilled performance and I really hope that, like all the actors, she is recognised for this heart-rending portrayal of grief.

Right…now that I’ve gushed about the acting, it’s time to give credit to the main man himself. Fran Kranz maintains tight control of everything and it’s absolutely astonishing that this is his debut feature. His script is gorgeously written and there’s a quote that I had to go back and listen to go again once I finished the film because I wanted to write it down. A dialogue-heavy script can be extremely difficult to get right and Kranz absolutely knocks it out of the park. His direction is equally as good: he keeps things tense and wracked with complicated emotions and never once escalates it to a point where it becomes melodramatic. This is drama in its truest form and it’s such accomplished work. I also have to give him more credit for his character writing. It would’ve been so simple to assign blame to the perpetrator and his parents, have a ninety-minute screaming match packed with insults and piercing dialogue and leave the audience shocked and outraged.

Instead, Kranz creates even more complexity within both the characters and their discussions. He tries to get to the root of the issue, exploring the defensiveness that can come with trauma but also the negligence of mental health care in our society. This is not just a conversation for the sake of it; it has themes and layers and a point to be found through discussion and different perspectives. Kranz juggles all of these things without ever once crossing the line into clichés or relying on the actors to cry and access their pain that way. He makes these characters do the work with each other, and it’s harrowing, it’s uncomfortable, but it ultimately feels healing and necessary.

Mass absolutely floored me from start to finish. I cannot wait to see it again and talk about it with more and more people until I’m blue in the face. I am a champion of this film during awards season and beyond. It’s emotional yet not conventional, simplistic yet not simple. And I am in awe of it all.

See this movie!

Mass is available in select theatres in the US and will be released on Sky Cinema in the UK in January 2022.


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