Recently added to Sky/NOW in the UK is the US drama film, Mass. The movie – written and directed by Fran Kranz – stars Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney, and tells the story of two sets of parents coming to terms with the deaths of their children.
In the movie, it has been six years since a high school shooting took place which killed multiple students. Trying to come to terms with the incident, as well as their own unimaginable loss, the parents of two children agree to meet in a mutual space to talk.
One set of parents – Jay and Gail – are grieving the loss of their son, Evan, who was a victim in the shooting. The other set of parents – Richard and Linda – are trying to come to terms with the loss of their child, Hayden, who was the perpetrator.
As the two families come together in the back room of a church, conversations are had about the fateful day, along with discussions about the events that took place in the aftermath. The families hope that by meeting they can find some answers to their questions, but they soon learn that some of those answers may be out of reach.
Before delving into Mass, I should make it clear this is a tough movie to watch. It is tough because it is a film inspired by true-life events.
The film is not centred around one specific incident, so it is not based on an actual case, but rather around a number of school shootings which have taken place in recent years. It uses the general conversation about tragic incidents and weapons being used in schools, to form the backdrop of the picture.
At no point does the movie show an incident, nor does it include any footage of the children who are at the centre of the story. Instead, it largely focuses on the parents, who come together to discuss what happened.
During the course of their conversation, the characters describe the incident in detail, to provide a greater understanding of what took place. As such, those who might find a discussion of this nature unsettling, or who have experienced tragedy, may find this difficult to watch.
But if you do feel Mass is something you are comfortable with, this is an incredibly powerful picture. It is a movie which takes an intimate portrayal of grief and loss, to tap into a wider conversation, and it handles its subject matter with the upmost respect.
There are a number of reasons as to why Mass is so impactful, and it is not just because of the subject being discussed. However, let me address this first, as it is something which is very important for the movie.
The topic of school shootings is one which is very emotive and sadly, ever-present. Finding a way to speak about the subject is difficult, because once the tragedy has been addressed, it can be easy for the conversation to slip into the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the incident.
This then causes the topic of gun control to arise, and this topic often divides opinion. And once opinions are split, further discussions often stall as opposing sides refuse to budge on their beliefs.
Mass does touch upon some of the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’, and ever-so briefly moves into the realm of gun control and ownership, but this movie is not about these topics. At its core, this film is about people expressing their feelings about their children, while pouring out their anger and sadness over their loss.
This film isn’t about one side of the story, it is about exploring feelings and experiences from two different angles. It asks the question: How do both families come to terms with what’s happened, when neither parent pulled the trigger?
The reasons as to why tragic incidents take place, or what the country is doing about such tragedies, is incredibly important, but this film wants to exist just below all that noise, to offer a frank, open, and honest line of dialogue about the pain. There are no answers here, and there is no resolution – there is only exploration and words.
By having a discussion which is contained to personal accounts, the film is able to maintain its focus. And by doing this, it gets to the crux of the conversation, without getting lost along the way.
The next reason as to why Mass works so well is because of the setting – almost the entire film takes place in one room, and with just the four core characters. By making the environment intimate, and by removing all distractions, the film has no place to go other than into a deep conversation.
It is a simple storytelling technique, but one which is incredibly effective. The room acts as a place in which anything can be said, no topic is out of bounds, and so long as the families are here, they have the opportunity to speak their minds.
It is a controlled environment, but one which is private. And it is in this privacy that both families are able to conduct open dialogue, which in turn brings so much to the surface.
Writer/director Fran Kranz has looked at this story on paper and has looked at it behind the camera, and has found a way to ensure every moment counts, and a large part of this is because of the setting. Had this film taken place in a different environment, then I would argue it would not work so well.
The final reason why Mass is as good as it is, is down to the casting. With such a small ensemble, it is important for all of the players to be at the top of their game, and that’s exactly what you get with the four leads.
Every actor in this film is superb, so it is difficult to signal anyone out. However, Ann Dowd and Martha Plimpton are so moving in their portrayal as grief-stricken mothers, that I have to highlight their performances.
Not only do these actors convey their feelings through their words, but also through their expressions and through their movements. No gesture is wasted, no look is lost – everything they bring to their respective characters is incredible.
The pain is etched in every fibre of their being. This is smart casting.
I’m not going to tell you to rush to see Mass, as I feel you will gravitate toward it when you are ready, but please do watch it. What you will find is a compelling, impressive picture, which brings so much to the table.
As previously mentioned, there are no answers to the conversations in this film, but there is plenty of dialogue and that is often the best starting point. Mass isn’t attempting to be the beginning or the end when it comes to tragedy and grief, merely an important stepping stone along the way.
I’ll reiterate what I said earlier, this is an incredibly powerful picture. Do see it, when you can.