The parents of a school shooter and the parents of one of his victims sit together in a church basement with their purpose being to find some sort of closure years after the tragedy occurred. There’s the premise for writer-director Fran Kranz’s devastating and earnest chamber piece and debut film, Mass. Thanks to four incredible, raw performances and a simple storyline that’s thematically layered, Mass was able to instantaneously leapfrog every other movie I’ve seen this year and land at the top. I was blurry-eyed throughout most of the film, and that’s highly unusual for me. But there’s just so much to chew on, stew in, and dissect that makes this such a deeply moving and emotional film.
While the center of this film is the aftermath of a school shooting, which is obviously a highly politicized kind of event, Mass doesn’t come across as political at all. The four leads (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton, who play the victim’s parents, Jay and Gail, and Ann Dowd and Reed Birney, who play the shooter’s parents, Lina and Richard) bring such an innate humanity to their performances that it’s hard to look at the story as political. If many of the same points and topics were brought up on Twitter or any other forum or gathering that strips people of their humanity and turns them into simple talking points or takes, then they’d get quote tweeted, jeered or yelled at, or the space would turn into a breeding ground for toxicity. But when you put four people in a room with the sole purpose being communication and discussion, you’re going to get a dynamic that’s inherently human.
Franz is able to communicate all of this so matter-of-factly. We see the entire 111 minutes play out in real time, which makes it both a grueling and highly rewarding viewing experience. In less confident hands, this could seem like a poor attempt at making what should be a stage play, but the cinematography and film language add thickness and substance to the film. The camera is often static for the beginning of the conversation, and has extended lingering shots on each of the characters. But after a certain pivotal point in the conversation, Ryan Jackson-Healy’s cinematography changes drastically. Shots become handheld and shaky, and more notably, there’s an aspect ratio shift that encloses the characters and immediately makes everything more intimate. Because this film is nothing if not intimate. It makes no secret of wearing its emotions openly on its sleeves.
Again, it’s because of the actors bringing a devastating rawness that this comes across as real and sincere instead of melodramatic and preachy. Their heartfelt vulnerability is what makes everything take the next step. Isaacs shows glimpses of his hammy evil baddies that he’s played so perfectly in the past, but that he’s unafraid to show a wide range of himself emotionally is what draws you in and makes you hurt for his character. Plimpton is almost the polar opposite of her husband in how she deals with the tragedy. Whereas Isaacs shows you what he’s thinking at every turn, Plimpton’s performance has so much boiling just under the surface until it all finally explodes. Hers is quite possibly the best performance out of four that should be Oscar-nominated. On the other side of the table, Dowd plays a confrontation-averse peacemaker with aplomb. She shows a genuine care and hurt for the other people in the room; she just feels like someone’s loving mother with best interests at heart. And Birney as well does the beneath-the-surface boiling, but with a higher wall put up. Each of these performances would be in the conversation for the most raw and true I’ve ever personally seen.
The film’s rawness is needed for its themes to come across. It asks questions about the value of human life, but takes it to a deeper level and wonders if we can ever know who a person truly is.
Is it actually possible to really know someone? When do people show us who they are, if ever? When should we forgive? Who deserves forgiveness? Can we accept forgiveness? How do we engage with people? How do we break down barriers that are both of our fault, but neither of our fault at the same time? What makes up a person? Where is their real value? Where do we find the ultimate meaning of someone’s life?
These questions are all excruciatingly explored, and their conclusions are answers that you may not expect once the topics are brought up. The film’s final five minutes, specifically its final shot, contextualizes a lot of what we’ve seen and heard in the past, and we learn of the film’s answers to these questions, all of which are hauntingly and painfully beautiful. It characterizes the inherently complicated nature of humanity in a way I’ve never considered before. It strips back all of the barriers and preconceptions we have about people and boils it all down to the importance of our shared humanity.
Of course, the film is called Mass and takes place in a church basement, so there is plenty of Christian imagery and thematic structure. Mostly, I found it to be an elegant exploration of what a church really should be. The movie is bookended with a character named Judy (Breeda Wool), who has some official position within the church. She’s inadvertently pushy and shallow and cares about the aesthetics of the room in which the four parents will be meeting in. She thinks bureaucratically about people and the church, which is sadly the state of the modern evangelical church. But Mass makes a case for what church can be — people coming together to share their deepest hurts and scars, but also their most profound joys and connections. It’s about emotional vulnerability, progress, helping those with whom we’d otherwise have little connection, love, and support. Forget about the snacks for the people, and focus on the people themselves. As a person who is fascinated with religion stripped of its religiosity (specifically Christianity, which I was brought up in, but have since strayed from), this movie fits better than I ever expected.
But most of all, Mass is about stories and their power in allowing us to communicate. Stories convey memory, life, and truth, and it’s only through sharing our own stories and listening to the stories of others that we can even begin to answer the aforementioned questions. Mass is interested in a lot of things, all of which have to do with just what it means to be human and to relate to others, and none of its ideas get lost or bogged down in the sea of beliefs that it puts forward. Up to the time I watched this film, I thought my top-two movies of the year were firmly set in place, not to be overtaken. But Mass easily passed them over. This is an absolute gem of a movie that shouldn’t be put to the side or ignored. And I don’t even think it’s too much to say it’s required viewing for everyone, even if your eyes will be red and your face will be wet with tears by the time it’s done. Fran Kranz has created a masterpiece in every sense of the word.