Directed by: Fran Kranz | 111 minutes | drama | Actors: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, Reed Birney, Breeda Wool, Kagen Albright, Michelle N. Carter, Michael White, Campbell Spoor
Four people, one room, a lot of talking. That is in fact the intention of ‘Mass’, the directorial debut of actor Fran Kranz (including ‘Dollhouse’ (2009-2010), ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ (2011)), who also provided the script. If he doesn’t make it easy for himself with the staging, the theme is obvious: the aftermath of a deadly shooting at a secondary school. Two couples sit opposite each other, the parents of the shooter and the parents of one of the children who was killed. The target? That stays in the middle. But gradually details emerge of the horrific event and how the various interlocutors dealt with it.
Kranz shuns an all-too-clear position. The gun policy in the United States is briefly touched upon, but leaves no room for digression, because the murder weapon turns out to be stolen from a classmate’s father. As in ‘Elephant’ (Gus van Sant, 2003), it appears that the shooter liked violent computer games, but (fortunately) no reason is sought in this. The film does not attempt to provide a solution for the mainly American problem of an average of more than one mass shooting per day, but deliberately only zooms in on the dynamics between the four interlocutors. The most important asset is the phenomenal cast.
Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton are the first couple, Jai and Gail, to join the conversation with mixed feelings. Gail indicates on the way to the meeting room that she really isn’t going to say “that one”. Jai gradually appears to want confirmation that the shooter’s parents could have seen the terrible deed coming. But Linda and Richard, played by Ann Dowd and Reed Birney, above all seem to wonder where they’ve failed as parents. Their son, the culprit, turns out to have committed suicide after the school massacre, so they too have to deal with grief. And they have clearly grown apart.
Because it is unclear whose idea the conversation was and what the four parents each intend to do with it, Kranz can play nicely with the mutual dynamics. A nice free moment at the beginning is when Linda starts to cry first and Gail’s eyes fire because she is the damn victim after all. Even though it seems that few agreements have been made regarding the conversation, you can read from the reactions that unwritten rules are broken every now and then. Venom comes before emotion. Lawyers are frequently referred to, indicating how great the distance between the two parents was.
And that distance is still there at the beginning of the conversation, also in the image. But somewhere halfway through, the presentation changes. Not only do the camera images become jerky instead of static, the image format used also changes during an intense monologue by Jai, in which he meticulously describes how the shelling went according to the police report. While he tells his story, the field of view of the viewer, but also of the parents themselves, is literally expanded by using a higher aspect ratio. There is rapprochement, but not necessarily in the way you would expect.
No matter how much emotional satisfaction ultimate mutual understanding would bring to the viewer, the film happily shows that grief is something elusive that everyone deals with in their own way. Although the whole set-up seems a bit artificial, all four players get plenty of opportunity to display their acting talent. It is literally the faces of Isaacs, Plimpton, Dowd and Birney that tell the story, almost without further ado. Very different from, for example, the also very strong ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ (Lynne Ramsay, 2011). No sensation this time, just visible emotion. And that makes ‘Mass’ a particularly strong debut.