Sundance Review: Mass
Fran Kranz’s Mass ponders who and what is left behind after a tragedy. A mass shooting, in this case, but the conversation between two couples touched by the violence - at once circular and shapeless - holds moral and emotional truths that go far beyond the specific circumstances of the film. The discussion is book-ended by two sequences that bring awkward, cathartic humor, but make no mistake: Mass’s beating heart rests in its center. One room. Four broken people. And a magnificent, operatic tête-à-tête that will leave you shaking.
The film’s captivation begins and ends with its actors. A film like Mass would be all-too easily filled by hammy, unmoored performances, and so it’s all the more miraculous that each of the four thespians is nearly pitch-perfect. As one couple, Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton are finely calibrated, two balls filled with messy repression until suddenly they aren’t. As each piece of their warring internal emotions is laid on the church basement table situated between the adults, we realize it has been there all along, simmering underneath the surface, struggling to break out. Ann Dowd is all empathy as mother, partner, and counterpart - and that means empathy for everyone, even those who may not deserve it. As her husband, Reed Birney is somehow weary, combative, and guilt-wracked all at once, an appropriate balance given the timing of this film.
And that timing is key: Mass takes place many months after the fatal shooting. Kranz descends us slowly into this world, tip-toeing around the relationship between these four people, as is natural with a group that has more history than we could imagine. He flips exposition on its head: the very pieces of information we need to know are the exact things that remain unspeakable for much of the film’s first half. It’s engrossing, sensitive filmmaking.
And let’s make one thing clear: this is a major work of filmmaking. The comparisons to a stage play will inevitably come - the movie is predominantly just four people in a room talking, after all - but these arguments are specious. Kranz makes Mass with immense cinematic purpose. The camera lingers on faces. Sometimes it shows both members of a couple, as when they are aligned, and others it divides them, separating them with a distance that matches the emotional chasm brought on by this tragedy. It floats around when the couples are searching for meaning and remains fixed when they have found it. A hard cut halfway through the film brings an earth-shattering calm.
Mass is just as heavy as you think it will be, but it’s better off for Kranz’s decision to lean into that burden. This subject would be let-down by a winking self-awareness. The sincerity of Mass is its selling point. It’s an experience unlike any other I had at this year’s Sundance.