Set in the meeting room of a modest Episcopalian church, two couples meet under tragic circumstances. For his directorial debut Mass, accomplished actor Fran Kranz is determined to wring out four incredible performances from four incredible character actors through the discussion of an extremely tough subject. It is mission accomplished as Kranz succeeds in finding understanding in the unthinkable.
Not too long ago, there was a school shooting. Richard and Linda’s (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) son was the shooter. Jay and Gail’s (Jason Issacs and Martha Plimpton) son was one of the victims. After signing a bundle of forms and refusing to press charges, Jay and Gail meet with Richard and Linda in an attempt at closure. What starts as cautious pleasantries quickly turns to passive-aggressive political discourse, then transforming into something resembling the truth. All are a bit confused about what they really want from this meeting, but the more they talk the more do motivations become clear.
As one-location cinematic interpretations go, this is a high-wire act. Never boring, rarely cloying, and shocking in its lack of judgment, Kranz offers his leads a lofty platform on which to play. It’s hard to pick a standout within the quartet, though one imagines Plimpton will receive the majority of the accolades. And it will be well-deserved. Emerging as the de facto lead as the picture plows forward, the lifelong performer has never been better. Her worn voice and tired eyes underline so much of the emotion on display. Dowd is as empathetic as ever, while Birney plays the most complicated character. His Richard appears to refuse to show remorse, a decision that nearly breaks Isaac’s Jay.
Kranz smartly keeps his screenplay’s focus on the characters. Mass never becomes an “issue movie,” as it were. From an eerie opening scene between Jay and Gail in their car ahead of the meeting to a final monologue from Linda, this tale is about two dead children and the people who raised them. As Linda says early when Gail asks her to tell her everything: “I can tell you everything, but there will still be things no one can answer.”
Supporting actresses Breeda Wool and Michelle N. Carter do superb work in limited minutes. Ryan Jackson-Healy’s camera never gets fancy, Darren Morze’s score never tells you how to feel. No one moment happens exactly the way it should, no resolution is perfect. So often do narratives like this get overcooked, overwritten or over-acted. That’s all avoided here. And though this may read as obvious, what an absolute joy it is to watch these four performers––so often prized bit players––be given so much to chew on. Not one of them pulls a punch or misses a mark.
Mass premiered at Sundance Film Festival.