[‘MASS’ Review] An emotionally taxing chamber piece about parents trying to move forward after a school shooting

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

MASS

Rating: PG-13, 110 minutes.
Director: Fran Kranz
Stars: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and Ann Dowd

I debated how long I could go without using the phrase “school shooting” when writing my film review for MASS. An “awful-” or “unspeakable tragedy” would have worked just as easily and allowed me to hold the subject’s cards close to the chest a little longer before full disclosure.

School shooting isn’t uttered until well after the half-hour mark. Audiences already in the dark about the film’s intent and direction may be blindsided by the reveal. It is a genius move – which I’ve now addressed like a room with an elephant in it – and quite the test for those unsure of what to expect from a story involving two sets of parents sitting across from each other in a sparse, nondescript room inside a church basement.

That’s it: four actors, a table and chairs, and a box of Kleenex placed in such a way as to remain neutral.

If you would have told me MASS was originally a stage play, I’d take you at your word. Actor Fran Kranz, making his writing and directing debut, crafts dialogue as if composing an instrumental. It makes perfect sense; the film is a chamber piece reliant on its few characters and small setting.

The couples meet. They are polite and cordial – a familiarity exists – though they are noticeably standoffish. Jay (Jason Issacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) have a minor tiff arriving early, with Gail verbally contemplating about going inside the church. Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) are more conservative upon arrival. The agreed-upon meeting is a search for answers and clarity. Years ago, a mass school shooting ended their world. Jay and Gail’s son was one of the students murdered. Richard and Linda’s son was the shooter. He killed several before taking his own life.

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton star in ‘MASS,’ written and directed by Fran Kranz. Courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Filmmakers Gus Van Sant (ELEPHANT) and Lynne Ramsey (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN) have approached the subject of teen malevolence and how there are no clear answers as to why such atrocities are committed. Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, in 2010’s BEAUTIFUL BOY, played parents on the verge of separation who become overwhelmed when they learn their son committed a mass shooting at his college campus before shooting himself. All three would be primers to the territory Kranz explores. KEVIN and BOY are the before and the after of the mothers and fathers of the gunman. MASS is also the after, the way after – the passage where the media has long tired of giving coverage to one heinous shooting event and moved on to, unfortunately, another.

Formalities quickly give way to mounting tensions. Jay and Gail want answers about the other couple’s son. Did they notice a change in behavior and for how long? They want to make sense of the nonsensical.

Richard and Linda carry the burden of the victims, including their son, also a victim – though as the perpetrator, he would never be considered among the casualties proper. The warning signs were there. They acted, but hindsight was far from 20/20. Their failure lives with them—an albatross instead of absolution.

As the couples go back and forth like a doubles match in tennis, the mothers show the greatest resolve. A mother’s love is a powerful force. Plimpton and Dowd bare their souls, and you can’t help but empathize for their losses and the emotional wounds that will never heal. I say never, but never is an awfully long time. Forgiveness and acceptance is the end game, and it’s a close Kranz and his ensemble can return.

MASS tiptoes around its subject to the point of being uncomfortable. Until it’s not. The tightrope walk is worth it for a film whose title’s multiple meanings are reflective in a story where questions are plenty, but answers are few. A powerful story that sticks with you well after the credits have finished.

Grade: A

MASS is now playing in select theaters.

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