Director: Fran Kranz
Stars: Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney
How do we talk about things too awful to talk about? What are the steps? How do we get there? Fran Kranz – an actor best known to this writer for jokey/sociopathic roles in the Whedonverse – makes his debut as a writer/director in sharp contrast to his on-screen work. Where the likes of Dollhouse and The Cabin in the Woods offered varying barriers of fantasy and goofiness, Mass unflinchingly leaves it’s characters – and audience – nowhere to hide.
Four people are set to meet in the backroom at an Episcopalian church. Those preparing for their arrival are on tenterhooks. Everything needs to be just so. Balanced. This meeting, one senses, comes with a sense not just of occasion but jeopardy.
The two couples arrive. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), and Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd). They sit on opposite sides of a table that’s been carefully set for them. And they talk around things, expertly. Uneasy small talk. Avoiding why they’re all there. Then, the intent of a bouquet of flowers – a gift – becomes a point of concern. It’s placement. It’s arrangement. This token – given by Linda – becomes a balancing object or, rather, one that destabilises. Creates imbalance. A fulcrum of the imbalance between the two couples, as we’ll well realise.
Jay and Gail are parents to children targeted during a mass shooting at a high school. One might argue that they are victims themselves. Richard and Linda are the parents of the shooter. Both parties are here, in the aftermath of lengthy court proceedings, to talk.
And Gail, for one, is sick of talking around things. Of politeness. Of politics. When Richard speaks without thinking, offering up his own culpability, she jumps on it as an avenue to open up a genuine – if confrontational – discourse. Both Richard and Linda, propelled by their own sense of guilt and need to appease, are generous with details. Contextual, anecdotal information. But as Linda sadly reminds Gail, there are some things they’ll just never know.
Kranz directs calmly, discreetly, but with poise and, unsurprisingly, great respect for his actors. Mass is a talky piece that mostly takes place in a deliberately bland room. The dynamics of this space are constantly within the bounds of his attention. How close these four people are to one another. How far apart. How separated and chopped away from one another by the frame.
Mass also flexes another sense of space. Taking place in real time, the pregnant pauses are full-sized and stifling. The volume of the discourse, too, is measured, mostly civil (if barbed). And when it comes to setting his own detonations, Kranz is ruthlessly efficient, and most of the time Jason Isaacs is his blunt force weapon in this regard.
Blustery as Isaacs is, all four players here are impeccable. Dowd, dependable as ever. Plimpton dialed back, held in, held together. She has the least to say but arguably offers up the most. Birney, beautifully empathetic as Richard.
Mass runs the litany of usual scapegoats – video games, mental health, parenting, antisocial behaviour – and still comes up lacking. Jay becomes positively enthused when it comes to theorising, to attributing reason, but his efforts are tragically, nearly farcically, futile.
Kranz’s script deftly navigates potentially incendiary material and manages to segue naturalistically through the myriad debates surrounding a subject that often leaves outsiders dumbfounded. Viewing from the vantage of the UK’s strict gun control laws, this grim phenomena in the US is particularly strange to behold. And, it seems, its very incongruity – and awfulness – has become a barrier of its own. People don’t want to talk about it. Mass pushes ceaselessly at this instinct. It’s a valid and well intentioned exercise in prying open an often tight-lipped or kneejerk discussion.
If anything, Mass overachieves. Having nimbly explored many facets of the issue – as well as many facets of human nature – Kranz doesn’t quite resist the urge to place a cherry on top. The film has a natural stopping point that he sails past in order to provide a little extra handwringing and catharsis. Ultimately, this coda feels a little too neat and convenient, not to mention a little melodramatic and manipulative. I’d argue he’d have done better to have remained in that one room.
Still, this aside, Mass is an admirably tough plunge into territory that most of us would rather not think about. One to admire rather than enjoy in any traditional sense, but bravery is what’s being called for here.