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Sundance 2021: “Mass” mines its staginess for heartbreaking effect

Sundance Mass

Fran Kranz’s debut is an emotional whopper of a drama, a vivid actor’s exercise with incredible performances and passionate ruminations on the aftereffects of tragedy.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

One would be forgiven for thinking writer-director Fran Kranz‘s debut feature, Mass, was based on a play: it’s a long, claustrophobic affair, set mostly around a folding card table set meticulously in the middle of a church basement by nearly pathologically-Midwestern church staff in the film’s opening minutes. We don’t see who’s going to sit in them for quite a few minutes, but the way the kindly, empathetic Judy (Breeda Wool) talks to their facilitator Kendra (Michelle N. Carter), we know we’re in for an emotionally-loaded experience. By the time Mass‘s two hours are finished, we’re as exhausted as Kranz’s subjects, but grippingly, cathartically so.

The table (and stage) is set for a semi-mediated sit down with two couples — Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney) — bound by tragic events. The initial language is awkward and loaded; neither couple knows what to say to the other, because it’s all already been said, either in public or through the courts and the press. We can reasonably intuit what happened between them long before Gail blurts out, “[Your son] killed mine,” but the line still lands with remarkable force. In loaded question after loaded question, we learn more about the truth and timeline of their grief: Richard and Linda’s son Hayden, propelled by forces they all still struggle to comprehend, took out his pain on his fellow students in a mass shooting that took the life of Jay and Gail’s son Evan.

While the politics of mass shootings and gun culture make their way into Kranz’s layered, organic script (mostly due to Isaac’s Jay, a man whose grief drove him to political activism), Mass refreshingly keeps its focus on the personal, exploring the lingering effects of trauma in the wake of horrific, unforeseen events. As the two couples try to talk to one another, people bound by a joined tragedy and the swirling forces of blame and anguish, Kranz smartly paces his script and his actor’s patient performances to let out their shared pain an ounce at a time, like tapping the valve of a pressure cooker before letting out all its long-accumulated steam.

Both couples mourn the same event for different reasons — Jay and Gail for the son ripped from them by hate, and Richard and Linda for the lost boy they didn’t know how to help, and whose actions have doomed them in many ways as well. Every line and gesture is suffused with rage and hurt both explicit and implicit, wanting to blame but yearning to heal. Everyone’s a victim here, even the shooter, given the severe emotional pain Linda and Richard make us privy to.

It’s all about the actors, and the ensemble collected here is immense, with nary a performance out of step for the script’s dramatic heavy lifting.

Kranz, himself an actor most famous for being in Joss Whedon’s company (Cabin in the Woods, Dollhouse), smartly gets out of the way of his ensemble, Ryan Jackson-Healy’s cinematography mining surprisingly dynamic compositions from of four people sitting in folding chairs around a brightly-lit church basement. It’s all about the actors, and the ensemble collected here is immense, with nary a performance out of step for the script’s dramatic heavy lifting. Dowd, one of our greatest living performers, is predictably impeccable, her Linda a patient, wounded woman who speaks with the florid consideration of someone who’s relived the events leading up to her son’s rampage every day in her head. (“Isn’t it worse that I thought I was a good mother?”)

Birney’s Richard is colder, more restrained, as if he’s still somewhat in denial at what his son has done — which clashes electrically with Isaac’s politically active, vindictive Jay, as they bandy about theories about what specifically drove Hayden to violence and what could have been done to stop it. Plimpton is the most soft-spoken and shell-shocked of the four, a woman still struggling to acknowledge the scope of their shared tragedy. She doesn’t speak much for most of the film’s runtime but dominates it in its closing scenes with quiet devastation. It’s career-best work for all four actors, particularly for Isaacs and Plimpton, who don’t often get such meaty, dramatic roles as this.

For all the made-for-black-box-theaters actoriness of Mass, Kranz takes care to immerse his audience in the torturous sadness of his characters. He sits you in that church basement along with them, languishing in every stammered sentiment and awkward silence, the outbursts of anger and the terrified changes of subject. It’s clear that Jay and Gail came looking for a fight, but what they found instead was four people demolished by the same thing they were, and the shared scramble to build something survivable out of the rubble.

“The world mourned ten people, we mourned eleven,” Richard observes late in Mass; Kranz asks for consideration even for the parents that most often get the blame by friends, family, and the public when they’re connected to such violence. The road ahead for all of them is unclear, and Kranz makes no pretensions of having any answers for such unanswerable questions. But for two hours, he sits us down with the people left behind when mass shootings leave the news cycle, and asks us to sympathize not just with the ones left behind, but the others it’s so very easy to blame. It’s an incredible, uncompromising debut.

Mass played in the Premieres category of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and will be distributed February 5th courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as one of the founders of the website/podcast Alcohollywood in 2011. He is also a Senior Writer at Consequence of Sound, as well as the co-host/producer of Travolta/Cage. You can also find his freelance work at IndieWire, UPROXX, Syfy Wire, The Takeout, and Crooked Marquee.