'Mass': A Haunting and Thought Provoking Slow-Burn
Updated: Jan 24, 2022
On paper, a dialogue-heavy film that takes place almost entirely in one room doesn't seem too cinematic. You would be forgiven if you thought that Mass, the debut feature from writer/director Fran Kranz, was based on a stage play. The film's script was originally written for the stage, but Kranz decided to turn it into a film instead. Despite the film's minimalism, there are some big ideas at the center of it, and the film ends up being an emotional and profound journey of grief, anger, tragedy, and healing.
The film centers around a meeting between two sets of parents, both of whom are connected by a senseless tragedy. We aren't entirely sure of the nature of what happened at first, but the film slowly unfolds to tell us everything that occurred. The film takes place entirely at a church where the parents are meeting, with the majority of the film taking place in a basement area with the four parents seated at a table. The conversation between them is the focal point of the whole film, and I was worried that since it dominates so much of the film, that it might not have that big of an impact, but almost miraculously, this film has been on my mind ever since I finished watching it, which is a true testament to the talent displayed here.
The performances are what most people will likely take away from the film, and rightfully so, given that all four of the main actors are delivering some of their finest work to date. Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton are phenomenal together, and each has at least one moment to truly shine throughout the film. I was especially impressed by Isaacs, as you can feel him wanting to stay calm, and the way his emotions simmer to their boiling point is quite awe-inspiring. The moments where he gets to let it all out are electric, and are among some of the more powerful moments of the film. There is a particularly cathartic moment near the end of the film that made me tear up just from the sheer expression on Isaacs's face, and it is one of the film's most powerful moments to me. Martha Plimpton is also incredible, and this is without a doubt the best performance I have ever seen from her. She captures the grief and anger of her character with such authenticity, and the monologues that she gives in the film are filled with such raw emotion. A scene where she tells a story about her son playing on the football team as a kid is particularly striking, as is a moment where she confronts the other two characters.
Ann Dowd's performance stuck out to me, as seems to typically play characters that are either antagonistic, or have a bit of an edge to them. This works in her favor, as the film thrives on the slow reveal of information, and it led me to have a bit of uncertainty about her character. However, the more we learn about her, the more you can't help but feel for her a little, despite the complicated nature of her character. She brings such genuine emotion to the role, and her final scene with Martha Plimpton is heartbreaking honest. Reed Birney's character is arguably the most fascinating of the film, as he is much more matter of fact than the other three. He has several monologues and large stretches of dialogue throughout the film, and he makes them all count. He also has this uncertain nature about him, and one particular scene where he talks frankly about the tragedy at the film's center is so well acted on his part that it literally made my jaw drop. These four performances are easily among the best of the year, as they all feel so real and fully formed.
While the performances are undeniably great, a lot of credit for why this film works as well as it does is because of writer/director Fran Kranz. Kranz has a lot of ideas that he is reckoning with in the script, and the way he explores them is intriguing, especially given the heavy subject matter of the film. Most filmmakers would likely use flashbacks, or approach the narrative of the film with more maudlin sensibilities, but Kranz eschews this in favor of exploring the gravity of the situation these characters are in the simplest way possible. This is a film about human connection, and since the film largely consists of the conversation between the four main characters, it is unavoidable. The audience is basically trapped in the room with them, and this creates a tense, almost claustrophobic environment at times. There is also a stillness in the film, which heightens any slight movement in terms of blocking, as well as specific editing choices and camera movement. There is a long stretch where the characters are sitting at a table, and just the act of one of them standing up felt strangely visceral. Even the simplest moments have a surprising amount of weight, and contribute greatly to the emotional impact of the film.
The way the film explores the aftermath of a tragedy is so raw and so humanistic, that it is often difficult to watch. What makes this even more impressive is that we never see any violence or any flashbacks for context. Everything is described by the characters, and the way that it is presented is so effective and relies on the audience's imagination to make an impact. Some of it is described in such detail that it is hard not to feel a knot in your stomach during certain scenes. The dialogue itself does feel like it should be in a play, but I didn't mind it. It still serves the film nicely, and it helped keep me invested. It does feel slightly overwhelming at times, both because of the emotional connotation of what's being said, as well the sheer quantity of the dialogue itself. But considering how crucial the dialogue is to the film as a whole, it is much needed, and articulated so well. If nothing else, this film made me think that if Fran Kranz can accomplish so much with so little, what can he pull off if he's given a larger budget? I do hope he's given a chance to answer that question in the future, as he has proven himself here to be a very promising filmmaker.
This film won't be for everyone, as it is a challenging watch. Some people might be put off by the lack of action and unconventional nature of it, but for others, this is a powerful and profound film that will haunt you long after it ends. I will say that if you do choose to watch this film, go into it knowing as little as possible. I went in almost completely blind, and it was such a shocking experience. As I write this, it's been almost 24 hours since I watched it, and I am still reeling from it. This is a gut-wrenching film that details a tragedy that feels so sadly relevant, and the lasting effects it has on people. The more I think about it, the more I find under the surface. There is so much to think about and so much that has been stuck in my brain since I watched it. So far, this film has been flying a bit under the radar, but I really hope it gets more recognition, as it truly deserves it. This is a unique and powerful film, and it is one that will destroy you, and then build you up again.