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At the centre of the agonising drama Mass is a conversation of overwhelming difficulty, the kind that makes you wince to even think about how it might play out. Watching it unfold for almost two hours is then something of an endurance test, an often suffocating experience trapped in a room with four people who don’t want to be there but know that they should, driven by the vain hope that maybe it might chip away at some of the paralysing pain they’re all stuck with. It’s going deeper into the darkness to try to see the light, asking hard questions knowing the answers will be even harder, a grim yet necessary torture chamber.
It takes place six years after a devastatingly familiar tragedy: a high school shooting. A room in a church is being prepared for a meeting between two sets of parents arranged by a lawyer and encouraged by a therapist. Both couples lost their sons that day and have been doggedly trying to process their grief ever since. For Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) that’s led them here, sitting down with Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), struggling with their loss too but also their responsibility for it was their son who was the shooter.
After an opening stretch slightly marred by an over-mannered turn from Breeda Wool as a nervy woman working at the church the couples are heading to, actor turned first-time writer-director Fran Kranz locks us in with the foursome and doesn’t let us out until they’re through. There’s something admirable in his lack of interest in combatting accusations of staginess, deciding against his characters taking any brief excursions out of his one location (even to the toilet) and refusing to use any form of flashback to visually illustrate the event being discussed. It’s an airless chamber piece, a self-assured gamble that pays off almost instantaneously thanks to the four impeccable performances at its centre, each parent processing, intellectualising and vocalising their anguish in different ways.
Their discussion is polite and delicately structured at first, influenced by advice from their respective therapists but soon Jay and Gail’s burn takes over, a desperate, if doomed, desire to know every small detail about the killer, to find some way of placing further blame at his parents’ feet. How could they not have known? What did they not pick up on? What could they have done differently? A lazier script would have turned Birney’s defensive dad into more of an antagonist, a gun nut perhaps (Kranz cleverly glides past political debate early on) or simply someone unwilling to accept the gravity of what his son has done. But what’s so sad and messy about Mass is that everyone here is a victim, including the shooter himself, a bullied boy with undiagnosed mental health issues, and so the breathless charge to find someone to be angry at, to punish, doesn’t lead anywhere; it never will. Jay and Gail were armed, expecting something more fractious perhaps but what they find is yet more sadness, two people who have also lost their son but whose grief will never be validated in the way theirs has been.
If it all sounds rather torturous then, yes, at times it is but the speed of Kranz’s dialogue and the quartet’s knotty, no-stone-unturned pathologising make it a gripping watch, bleak but never oppressively so. It’s anchored by four never-better actors, digging into their haunted characters, avoiding histrionics and instead showing us the constancy of grief, always there, always hurting somewhat, rather than one which emerges during a frenzied outburst. Birney, an actor best known for his stage work, and Dowd have the harder roles to pull off but they’re both able to convincingly convey the unfathomable conflict of still loving someone who did something so horrible (Dowd’s final moment in the film, a story she tells about her dead son, is a gut punch).
Kranz, bizarrely best known as the stoner in Joss Whedon’s meta-horror The Cabin in the Woods, has crafted an impressively bracing debut devoid of sentimentality, a film of difficult questions that avoids easy answers. Mass may not be a particularly enjoyable experience but it’s a strikingly effective one.
Source: The Guardian
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