Judy (Breeda Wool) fusses over the room, placing the table, setting out too much food. She frets as a business-like Kendra (Michelle N. Carter) scrutinizes the artwork and adjusts the chairs just so, strategizing the placement of the tissue box. These preparations, conducted in hushed tones, portend the anguished drama that is about to play out in this space.
This simple side room of an Episcopalian church is neutral, a safe space if you will, but it’s also a healing space, adjacent to holiness, holding the confessions of many an Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon meeting. It’s within this space that we will remain for the rest of this film, “Mass,” the directorial debut of actor Fran Kranz, who also wrote the script.
Four people enter this room, and they leave, changed forever after their hourlong discussion, which plays out in real time, the centerpiece of the film. Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton are Jay and Gail, who arrive visibly pained. Reed Birney and Ann Dowd are Richard and Linda, who are halting, but conciliatory. Linda proffers a flower arrangement; no one knows what to do with it. There is agonizing small talk, because these four people know each other intimately, even if they’ve never met. Finally, we, the audience, are let in on what they’re talking around: the death of Jay and Gail’s son, Evan, in a school shooting perpetrated by Richard and Linda’s son, Hayden.
Who knew Kranz had this script in him? Best known for his role in the self-aware horror riff “The Cabin in the Woods,” Kranz stuns with his directorial debut, which is spare and restrained, rippling with tension and almost unbearably claustrophobic. As emotions mount in this room, the niceties falling away, Jay and Gail unleash their grief and pain, demanding impossible answers to impossible questions. The experience of watching “Mass” is stifling. Then it cuts away, like taking a breath, a deep gulp of air, before plunging back into this hard-fought catharsis.
The details of the events are ripped from the school shooting narratives we, as Americans, know all too well. The Hayden described by Richard and Linda, as well as his actions, described by Jay and Gail, is an amalgam of the isolated loner school shooters we have come to know over the past 20 or so years. That he’s even recognizable is a sad fact that illustrates this reality we’ve begrudgingly come to accept.
“Mass” is not overtly political. While it touches on Jay’s gun control activism, and offers a sad collective processing of this regular slaughter that’s become a part of American culture, it remains deeply, and intensely, personal. The austere aesthetic frames four powerful and emotionally raw performances, these actor working at the absolute peak of their skill. Dowd and Plimpton are a study in contrasts: Gail is tough and defensive, while Linda is open, and almost childlike, asking innocently to be told a story, to tell her own. Somehow, the women come together over the impossible, deeply painful, and beautiful experience of motherhood.
But the film is not about motherhood, necessarily, but about tragedy, and how we reckon with it. In the wake of the kind of impossible loss that is losing a child, we try to find a reason why, or to demand some meaning. “Mass” doesn’t impose any meaning, it simply observes the searching for it, and the infinitesimally small salvations we can hope to find in the process.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic content and brief strong language)
Running time: 1:50
Where to watch: In theaters Friday
©2021 Tribune Content Agency, LLC