I can completely understand if anyone chooses to ignore the indie movie Mass for its subject matter alone. It’s heavy. I get it. It’s about two sets of parents, one pair (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton) whose child was murdered in a school shooting, and the other pair (Reed Birney, Ann Dowd) whose child was the school shooter. It took me weeks to even work up the courage and proper mood to sit down and watch the movie. I’m glad I eventually watched Mass because it was so emotionally engaging and ultimately cathartic. That’s what I want more people to understand so that they give this hard-hitting indie gem a chance. It’s not all doom and gloom. It’s not all angry finger-pointing and gnashing of teeth. Mass is much more than you expect while being exactly what it sets out to be. It’s a small film brimming with big emotions and an even bigger wealth of empathy, allowing every participant to be a multi-dimensional human being struggling to make sense of the unimaginable that has dominated their life. Mass is one of the best written and acted movies of 2021 and deserves your time and consideration.
As you would expect given this set-up, it’s a lot of powerful conversations and grueling personal details. If you were unfamiliar with the premise, the movie teases out is main scenario like the key info are valuable kernels, and slowly and surely, we get a fuller idea of what has transpired years in the past and what the connection between these two groups of people is. It’s also a terrific setup to build anticipation and dread, so those first few moments face-to-face have the awkward niceties but we’re really waiting for the big subjects to be get their due, and they will, oh boy will they ever. However, if you’re going in looking for blood and easy answers, then this isn’t going to be the witch hunt you crave. I’m reminded of a Ted Talk I watched recently from Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, who was responsible for the Columbine school massacre in 1999. She talks about not recognizing signs, not of homicidal tendencies, but of suicidal tendencies, of depression manifesting as something else. It’s easy to cast blame and formulate our own assessment of parenting failures and ignored warnings, but what if the situation is far more complicated than that? What if the parents of the shooter are just another set of victims, except they never get to be honored as such by the public? They’re often looked at with suspicion, doubt, and culpability, defined by tragedy but transformed to social pariahs (the perspective illustrated so exquisitely and humanely by 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin). Where Mass excels is with its mighty empathy. Everyone in this story is a victim. Full stop.
You’d be forgiven thinking Mass is based upon a stage play given its dialogue-driven story and single location setting, but it’s an original screenplay by director Fran Kraz, an actor best known for his comic relief parts in Joss Whedon projects (TV’s Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods). I was blown away by the immersive writing and empathy. For the first half of the movie, the parents of the shooter dominate the discussion, as they’re delivering us needed exposition on the day in question but really all the steps beforehand, the red flags that didn’t appear to be so permanent until they were. For every school shooting we read about in the news, the next question is where the parents were or why didn’t they act sooner if they had their suspicions. This is the period of the movie that answers those pertinent questions. The second half is more about the response to this news, culminating in a catharsis of tears and grace, facilitated first through anger. It’s a script structure that feels fully without manipulation, meaning the bend of the conversation occurs in a natural drift and pace. Nobody just blurts out what they want to talk about because the script is in a rush to leap to this next topical area of conflict. Franz is also very generous as a writer, able to make sure each character has their opportunity to shine and making sure we understand each character’s perspective. By the end of it, you should hopefully understand that there are no bad guys here, just victims on different sides of trauma suffering to make sense of tragedy. The monologues in this, beautifully written and performed, broke me each and every time.
Every actor holds their own but Issacs (Star Trek: Discovery) and Plimpton (TV’s Raising Hope) each get their big Oscar moment. It’s always peculiar to watch Isaacs play “normal roles” as we’re so accustomed to seeing him portray snide villains because he’s so damn good at them. Here he’s a grieving father who gets his fiery meltdown moment, and Franz has the great sense to never let his camera off the actor, allowing the full take to just derive from the live-wire emotions of the scene. It leaves the actor shaking and you just might do the same while watching. Isaacs is more the force of anger, while Plimpton is more the force of resolution, seeking an ending for all the heartache that has transformed her marriage. Her plea toward the end of the movie is an attempt at reconciliation that ends a heavy movie on uplift.
I want to also credit Dowd (Handmaid’s Tale) and Birney (House of Cards) for their performances. They’re the more subdued ones, castigated for their position, afraid to show too much emotion because of the guilt they feel that they should have done more. Both are great, and Dowd’s final monologue, a story about her son she wants to share for better understanding, also had me in tears and especially what it results in. It’s worth it, folks, so stick around through several minutes of dithering discussion over where to find a box.
Mass is a hard movie to watch by design. It’s a delicate subject matter that will prove triggering for some and simply emotionally unpleasant and crushing for most. It’s ultimately a powerful movie about understanding, about shared grief, about empathy and relationships and similarities. It’s brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, and confidently directed. It’s little more than four people in a room hashing out their grief and conflicts, but when the drama is this potent and the characters are this complex, then it’s worth the prolonged discomfort and knots in your stomach.
Nate’s Grade: A-