There was a moment in Mass that felt so profoundly terrifying to me, not in the film itself, but from the implication of said film and its message. I began to think of 2019, when an armed student killed two students and wounded four more after entering a crowded classroom on exam day and opening fire on the campus of UNC Charlotte, my alma mater. Having graduated less than a year prior, I had friends, colleagues, professors, supervisors, mentors all on campus that day, all scared, confused, and simply alone in the dark. I texted with my best friend still in school as she awaited being evacuated from a building adjacent to the one where the attack occurred. Even a fellow writer whom I had worked with at the school newspaper for years was among the wounded, and I felt angry…so incredibly angry. During a pivotal moment in Mass, I felt that anger again for a brief moment, and I had a thought that hit me like a truck: This is no longer something that only affects a select few. Every American in some way, whether directly or indirectly, has been affected by the scourge of mass shootings, and probably knows at least one person who has been directly affected by such events. The realization that the events spoken of in Mass not being a particularly special or “history-making” attacks speaks volumes to the level of desensitization of gun violence in this country, and it was what kept me staring at the ceiling last night thinking of the implications of that.
Mass follows two couples, Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), and Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), meeting to help come to terms with the tragedy that Hayden, the son of Richard and Linda, committed a mass shooting at his high school, which took the life of Evan, the son of Jay and Gail, before committing suicide. After six years of grieving, the families sit to have the tough conversations of failed parenting, gun control, mental illness, and indirect culpability for the actions of their children.
Mass is an exceedingly simple film, one that resembles more of a stage play than a film, but there is genuine value in that simplicity. At the end of it all, Mass comes down to two pivotal things — its screenplay and its performances — and on those, it delivers immensely. Being able to see something so stage-worthy shot in close-ups where you really get to see the emotional subtleties of each character’s pain and coping mechanisms with said pain is heart wrenching, and it makes the film not an easy pill to swallow at first, but there’s also a real soft, earnest sense of human understanding that begins to unfold in writer/director Fran Kranz’s screenplay, that gives depth and humility to each perspective, while never diluting the distinct personalities of each character.
Simply put, it’s hard to say that any one performance in Mass is better than another, as everyone is operating at maximum effectiveness from beginning to end. What’s so truly refreshing about Mass is that it gives audiences the chance to see some of the most reliable character actors in the business receive an opportunity to not only get their chance to shine in leading roles, but ones that absolutely blow any sort of expectation out of the water. I knew Ann Dowd was a good actress coming into this, but it’s hard to expect something that good out of even the most established of prestige movie stars. I’m familiar with many of Jason Isaacs’s turns as blockbuster villains such as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, Volmer in A Cure for Wellness, and even non-evil roles in truly evil films like his turn as D.J. in the sci-fi classic Event Horizon. Seeing such a big-budget supporting staple get his turn to deliver not only a good, emotional performance, but a tender powerhouse of pain feels so satisfying as someone who has followed his career for years. This falls to every single person in this movie. This is the type of film that, had the Academy let them split their performances into separate categories instead of going all supporting, could’ve feasibly led to a clean sweep in a good year.
Mass also prioritizes keeping the film’s possible exploitation of mass violence in America to a minimum. While nothing in the film is pleasant, as someone with a particular sensitivity to such things these days, the way in which they respectfully, but honestly confronted the reality of the situation as a whole was a sigh of relief on my part. It’s a tender, kind film that, despite its ugly nature, finds a heart in a pit of darkness. That, especially in the current age, has a lot of currency.
My only major issue with Mass simply lies in some small filmmaking choices in the film’s initial pacing and some visuals. The film’s initial setup with the family’s attorney working with an employee of the church the meeting is occurring in at first seems like a nice little aside before the meat of the story, but I found the caricatures of these players to be a bit heavy-handed, made especially more clear when we return to them by the film’s end, which felt leagues away from what went on for most of the film. Also, at one point, the film’s aspect ratio shifts to an almost ultrawide image, and while I understand the narrative choice of this change, I personally am just growing a bit tired of aspect ratios being thrown back and forth for stylistic purposes, especially when Mass is a film that truly does not require that sort of flourish.
That doesn’t make what I went into Mass looking for any more elusive. You go to Mass for the performances, and baby, they deliver on that with a capital P. It’s a heavy film, but one that isn’t so entirely constrictive and oppressive to where no hope can be found. Mass actually seeks to find a semblance of hope in the grips of a violent tragedy, without trying to tie a definitive bow on it for the audience to hold onto. Mass asks questions that it knows it doesn’t have the answer to, because these are answers that are so personal, and unfortunately, so much more common for parents to have to both fear of and deal with if the day comes.
In select theaters October 8th, 2021.
Screened during the 2021 Film Fest 919.
Head to the official Mass website for more information.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.