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‘Mass’ Review: A stirring, slightly mechanical debut about the open-endedness of tragedy

Four stellar performances anchor Fran Kranz's first behind-the-camera effort, burned by the embers of grief and the desperate search for closure.

A single-location drama so careful of foot that it spends several minutes introducing the arena which emotional fireworks will soon turn into a minefield, “Mass” is a debut of near-absolute emphasis on its potential as a hypothetical filmed stage production rather than an actual film. As it is, it’s a tense movie of dialogue and pitch and the explosive volume of frustrations which have festered over years, but only ostensibly does it train its eye on the lit fuse attached to tinderboxes of grief because its cinematic rhythms are barely legible, if they’re there at all. That it manages to locate poignancy feels like the movie succeeding in spite of itself, and those lingering sparks of catharsis you’re left with are a testament to the stellar performances which provide “Mass” its strongest reason for being—four full-throttle pistons bringing sheer, heart-shattering life to the engine of the screenplay. 

Discussing narrative becomes a strange and ambiguous endeavor when it comes to “Mass,” seeing as writer-director Fran Kranz takes what would be the climax of a more traditional drama and expands it to nearly two hours unfolding in near-real time. Kranz builds his movie upon the emotional wreckage of past tragedies not explicitly depicted but teased, divulged and eventually picked apart, his script resembling something which has been cleaned and polished several times through. The result is a stirring debut whose neatness feels overly rehearsed, and while the reality is that that takes some getting used to, it’s also somewhat appropriate for a story about the kind of confrontation for which any sense of expectation may prove fruitless. That goes as much for us as it goes for the characters.  

“Mass’s” opening half-hour is a creeping, mysterious first act which finds the audience pursuing the most general of hints about what transpired several years prior to a meeting of two anxious couples – one played by Jason Isaacs and Matha Plimpton, the other by Reed Birney and Ann Dowd – and it’s to the movie’s credit that this feels less like a gimmick than the captivatingly slow breaking of ice hardened by antagonistic glances and shy appeals to common ground. What is it that’s brought these people together in the backroom of a church narthex, with the help of a third party happy to facilitate but eager to get out of dodge? “Mass” is a movie of feeling more than spoilery revelation, but its marketing has remained vague anyway. So we’ll walk the same path here: These are two sets of parents meeting six years after a shared tragedy took their sons away, creating wounds of guilt, remorse and anger. If you feel your initial impressions shifting at certain points, your sympathies tilting on their axis at others, it’s because this movie’s central quartet of veteran actors wades through those open cuts with extraordinary breadth of vulnerability. 

At the same time, each grieving parent is quietly desperate for their own version of closure, and it's these agendas which are challenged as Kranz – notably and ambitiously – steers to avoid the real-world politics of his subject matter. Instead, what he zeroes in on is the collateral spillage of confusion and rage that tends to define life’s most unfair assessments. Isaacs’s Jay, bracingly sullen to the point you’re worried his face will crater in on itself, is a masterclass in bubbling ferocity, while Plimpton’s stinging, barely concealed indecisiveness as Gail gives “Mass” its initial jolts of tension. Across from the small table set up for them, Dowd’s Linda expertly toes the line between generosity and protectiveness, while Birney’s Richard, looking like he’s merely killing time before a business trip, spins aloofness into something else entirely and on a dime in one of the movie’s few real moments of surprise. 

To convincingly embody many years’ worth of pain and withholding without showing the inciting incident itself is an incredible task Kranz has set forth for his small ensemble, and you can imagine the invisible structures of shared grief tumbling down if just one of them wasn’t as committed as the movie needs them to be. But Kranz has thought this through to a squeaky clean degree, giving each of his four protagonists equal weight in such a way that the unanimity feels triumphant in spots and phony in others. In certain respects his actors and script are the only things given any weight; a scarcity of visual imagination initially lends itself to a movie which has been stripped down to the bare essentials, but there’s only so much close-up cinematography framed against shallow focus “Mass” can indulge in before the formal minimalism of Kranz’s debut threatens to fold in on itself. 

There comes a point when the director finally makes purposeful use of space and geography, finding points of emotional convergence amid the disarray. At its most searing, “Mass” suggests that talking your way through the thorniest thickets of tragedy won’t be enough to find answers, and it’s to the first-time filmmaker’s credit that this comes across not as a lament, but as a place of clarity. It’s a movie of many monologues, and a monologue of a movie in its own right. Yet its power, ultimately, is derived from whispers of long-awaited affirmation, and literal notes of harmony wafting in from the path that still lies ahead, whether they’re ready to traverse it or not. 

"Mass" is rated PG-13 for thematic content and brief strong language. 

Starring Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, Reed Birney

Directed by Fran Kranz



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