2021, PG-13, 110 min. Directed by Fran Kranz. Starring Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Michelle N. Carter, Breeda Wool.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 22, 2021
It was falling in with the wrong friends. It was having no friends. It was video games. It was neurological. It was psychopathy. It was neglect. It was overcoddling. Hayden killed his classmates, and no one knows why.
In Mass, Fran Kranz's heartbreaking, poignant, rage-filled howl of a directorial debut, the American plague of school shootings is given four faces, four people, four parents. They sit in a room in a church, a quiet place for them to exchange pleasantries, hand over a little flower arrangement, and then tear themselves open in keening, wailing pain.
Kranz's script finds these survivors in a place beyond simple anger, or hatred, or grief. For years, Gail (Plimpton) and Jay (Isaacs) have tried to find some focus for what happened to their son in an ordinary classroom. Today is an extraordinary one, and yet so simply laid out. They finally meet, alone, with the parents of the boy that killed their son. Richard (Birney, a picture of buttoned-down torment) and Linda (Dowd, utterly incomparable) look like the kind of parents they would run into at a bake sale, and there's a fragile politeness to their opening conversation. The session has clearly been exquisitely arranged in advance by a grief counselor (Carter), who sets the last details with a church volunteer (Wool) who awkwardly acknowledges the weight of the day in an opening sequence that literally sets the stage for the four parents, each grieving in their own way.
Then the door closes, and four of the year's most powerful, tragic, touching, and poignant performances emerge. Kranz's script walks the audience through every moment of their hourlong meeting. It's not that there is anything new for them to say – after six years of very public grief and shame, and unstated dissection of the crime in the media. What's important is that they can say it to each other.
Kranz does not seek for immediate answers to the gun crisis – indeed, in typical masculine form, Jay and Richard banter and bicker about rival theories about what could have happened. Instead, he looks deep into the burden of trauma, and the complexities of forgiveness, both of others and of self. It's easy to empathize and sympathize with Gail and Jay, but in finding compassion for the inconsolable social status as pariahs, the parents of a killer, that Linda and Richard carry forever he illuminates the subject and his characters with a deep and abiding humanity.
Kranz undoubtedly draws upon his Broadway experience for a script that is both terse and mannered, yet utterly natural and organic. The opening sequence, before the quartet arrive, is so loaded with ominous doom that it feels like another shooting may happen, but it simply carries the overwhelming gravity of the situation. Once the four are together, there are moments that the characters have prepared, rehearsed over and again for this day; facts embedded in their minds that they can never escape, and details that they have stared at so often that they can recite them. That's what the cycle of grief is, and Kranz imbues those moments with a special tone and timbre that quietly contrasts with the moments of interchange and exchange. As the audience, being the fifth silent figure in the room is exhausting because you feel for every single one of them. Yet it is also a story of grace, perfectly told and etched into every understated frame. Mass takes the high school shooting drama out of the exploitation rut into which it has fallen, and instead turned it back into a story of people. It's a simple achievement to name, but an extraordinary one in its impact.