A graceful, if overcautious, portrayal of grief.
The true sadness in Mass is that the most horrific thing imaginable happened to ordinary people, and so I appreciate that Mass is as unflashy as it believes it should be: the characters, setting, lighting, and even the lack of a score for much of the film, are all deliberately mundane. I still feel there are ways to render that mundanity with a slightly more artistic touch, without tipping over into being overwrought or melodramatic. Mass clearly errs on the side of caution.
At its core, Mass is four grieving characters in a room, with solid writing, two good performances (Jason Isaacs and Reed Birney), and two great performances (Ann Dowd and Martha Plimpton) in what’s essentially an exceptional drama workshop. Together, these hit all the emotional and story beats they should, with the kind of understatement and nuance you hope for.
Around that, however, is film-making which doesn’t quite rise to the occasion – and while this may sound like harsh critique, it’s really only mild disappointment given the quality of the material. The cinematography is uninspired, and even occasionally distracting (not to nitpick, but is widescreen anamorphic really the best choice for a claustrophobic story?). The editing, which does what it can with what it has to work with, really only has to choose between action and reaction shots, and at crucial moments chooses the less interesting of its options – though with the performances on offer, the choice is never really wrong.
Regardless of how ineffectively they may have been balanced, there are enough compelling elements in Mass to make it a gently aching watch.
There’s also a good 30 minutes at the start which the film could really do without – two other characters, Judy (Breeda Wool) and Anthony (Kagen Albright), faffing about and setting up the room, who are both irrelevant to the plot and absent from its central action. A little of that time could have been spent better leading us into the basic premise: that the parents of a school shooting victim are meeting the parents of the shooter.
Outside of the central cast of four, the only other interesting character is the organiser of the meetup, Kendra (Michelle N. Carter). Kendra’s presence, and her portrayal, offers a glimpse into a role that we may not have ever considered before, but which on reflection makes surprising and stunning sense: there would need to be some kind of producer for this specific type of event. This, in turn, prompts us to contemplate that this is someone’s job, that this sort of thing is a regular enough occurrence, and the unique paradigm that this particular situation might present – a novel introduction to the tension before the four main characters even arrive.
Comparisons are sometimes shitty, especially with such earnest film-making, but when i wonder how Mass could have been better crafted, i think of films like Marriage Story, which is also sincere and raw, but which is also full of moments in which structure, camera, and particularly editing are inventive without being distracting. What I’m saying is: it’s possible. So I’m not entirely convinced that first-time writer/producer/director Fran Kranz has distributed screen time between what he has on his hands as effectively as he could have. But regardless of how they’ve been balanced, there are enough compelling elements in Mass to make it a gently aching watch.
“It seems to be more dramatic than many of the films I’ve been in, in which planets explode or aliens arrive, or it’s life-and-death, because it’s about forgiveness, and it’s about the baggage we carry,” Jason Isaacs elegantly puts it during this writer/producer/director and cast discussion (which also reveals just how emotionally connected Ann Dowd was to her role) at Sundance Film Festival: