Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 51 minutes, Director – Fran Kranz
Six years after a school shooting the parents of one of the victims (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton) meet with those of the shooter (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney) to discuss the tragedy, its effects and what built up to it.
“The world mourned ten, we mourned eleven” Reed Birney’s Richard forces out to finally bring his true personal perspective into the gradually steaming emotion of the conversation which until now he’s largely treated as if he were at a business meeting. Formally dressed in shirt and tie he stands out as an emotionally guarded figure, compared to the varied emotions that are circling around him – including from his wife, Linda (Ann Dowd), who consistently displays her personal deal of what could be seen as guilt and damage from the last six years on her after constant press attention, and yet it feeling like the world has turned its back on her and her husband – who appears to have a somewhat distant approach from her after what feels like a disagreement about how they were going to go into the meeting which Mass largely concerns itself with.
The meeting is with parents Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), who lost their child, Evan, in a school shooting by Richard and Linda’s son, Hayden. Jay and Gail are looking for more answers. A sense of understanding, yet a sense of blame. They want to know more about the tragedy that lead to their sons death, what may have lead to it; and indeed the events after. None of the conversation, which takes part at a table in a quiet, largely plain white, church room, is easy for anyone to start. It’s not easy to end or keep going. This is shown in the gaps and the silences which both the characters and audience experience over the nearly two hour course of the film.
Focusing on this central conversation throughout, after some initial build-up preparing us for the meeting and arrival of the characters, there’s, of course, a need for a solid screenplay and set of performances to keep the audiences attention. Debut writer-director Fran Kranz crafts a piece that doesn’t just give time to the naturalistic words and performances that form the humanity of the film, but simply gives time and space to the characters at the heart of it. Allowing for the moments of silence, the sharp breaths and the tears. After one particular outburst, perhaps the key one of the film, there’s a short cutaway. Not one to take you away from the moment, but simply allows that point to circulate in your mind for longer, thinking about it before time unfreezes and you’re back in the room where most of the film takes place.
The conversation doesn’t as much escalate, but rather progresses towards the points of heated questioning, explanations and eventually discussions. Both pairs of parents are hurting. You can see this by just looking at them, not just hearing the words they need to say. You can tell just by looking at Plimpton’s excellent performance (for my money, the best in the film) that her character isn’t showing anger, like her husband, but instead feels distress and fear. She’s clearly thought about what she wants to do and say, as shown in the car before the meeting, but now in the moment nothing seems right. Instead she, like everyone else, finds herself relying on vocalising her thought process, the emotional flow that’s are going through her mind at the time.
It’s perhaps the only flow throughout the film. There are large portions, particularly in the early stages of the meeting, where things don’t flow. They’re not meant to. We’re meant to experience the moments of static, and it’s all thanks to Kranz’s screenplay that we do. Pushing a sense of freedom which is lightly held in place so that we don’t often notice or think about it. The room could be left at any time, it certainly doesn’t feel like a prison or as if the character’s or trapped; and yet we remain there, often in static shots that gradually move into emotional shakes and wobbles.
It all comes together to enhance the emotional build-up. Early on church worker Judy (Breeda Wool) is told not to put a box of tissues in the very centre of the table, it makes room for the piling collection of emotions that forms over the course of the film. Only ever threatening to spill over towards the final stages, before being reined back in for a highlight monologue from Plimpton, which brings everyone in the room into consideration.
Each emotional response is different for each person, experiencing their own form of grief and narrative after the tragedy which has unfortunately brought them together at this point, seemingly not for the first time. Personal confrontation and reflection is continued from outside just this meeting, simply verbalised at this point in time to eventually act as a form of understanding for both parties. It’s interesting to see them come together and express their views and pain in their own individual ways, not just as couples but as individual human beings caught up in and affected by the events. People may go in looking for clear villains, but there certainly aren’t any and the film makes that clear. This is a simple, effective, discussion between human beings that acknowledges and uses humanity and naturalism to enhance the emotional centre of the grief and tragedy that sparks much of the intentionally hesitant conversation.
Mass is a film which knows how to give time and space to not just its excellently performed characters but to the words that are so integral to the conversation that takes place. Understanding humanity and naturalism to heighten the emotional responses of both viewers and characters.