[SUNDANCE 2021] MOVIE REVIEW: MASS is a devastating look at those left behind in the wake of a tragedy and the cross they bear in the aftermath.


Writer/director Fran Kranz makes his feature debut with this stunning and heartbreaking portrayal of the parents of the victims of a school shooter meeting the parents of the shooter to try and find a way forward.

In the Catholic tradition, the word mass refers to a summit, a coming together to communicate a shared inner life. In America, we know the word mass in a different sense; that of mass school shootings which have become far too prevalent of an everyday occurrence since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 of their fellow high school students at Columbine High School in Colorado back in 1999. Writer/director Fran Kranz takes both of these definitions to heart in crafting his narrative feature debut, Mass, a meditation on the aftermath of a mass shooting and its devastating toll on the family of one of the victims and on the parents of the mass shooter who takes his own life after the massacre.

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton play the parents of Evan, a victim of a mass shooting, who have agreed to meet with the parents of the shooter who killed their son in an attempt to find closure and understand why and how this could have happened. Years have passed since the shooting; a single ribbon tied to a fence near the high school being the only remaining marker of the shooting. But even though time has removed most physical vestiges of tribute and remorse by the community, the emotional scars are just as fresh as the day that both couples lost their son. The parents of the shooter, played by Ann Dowd and Reed Birney, are also victims in a different way. They lost their son, but they cannot grieve him; the circumstances behind his death making even finding a place to bury his body an untold sadness they had to endure.

The two couples come together at an Episcopalian church to try and find a way to come together to communicate their shared grief and come to understand the why of it all. It’s to Kranz’s credit and skill as a writer that a film with only four actors in one room for its running time is somehow still dynamic and never feels sedentary. Kranz’s skills in blocking out the shots here with his director of photography keep the film moving while we take in the haunting and extraordinary performances from his cast. In particular, one scene that ends with Isaacs screaming in grief does a dramatic cut to that singular ribbon on the fence blowing in the breeze with the force of a bomb that eclipses their surroundings.

But, in particular, it is the performances in the film that make it so powerful. Mass is driven by career-best performances by Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, and Reed Birney that demand attention come awards season. Ann Dowd is giving a career-best here as an emotionally-destroyed mother who is struggling to come to terms with the callous murderer her son grew to be from the shy and bullied boy she knew who kept slugs in a mason jar and loved the outdoors as a small child. Similarly, Plimpton commands the screen as the mother of the murdered boy who just wants answers she can understand as to why her son was taken from her. She needs to know who he was and were their signs these parents may have been able to spot and somehow saved her boy. Isaacs redefines his career here as a grieving father who doesn’t believe in a greater power but whose grief is the only thing he can control and trying to find a way to let that go and forgive may be more than is in him to do. Mass touches on many of the reasons and fears Americans have about school shootings; from whether the answer is more attention towards gun control vs. funding and attention towards awareness of mental health, to whether violent games, bullying, or pop culture play a cause in turning kids into killers. It all feels conversational and real, due to the strength of not only the script but the performances in the film, which deliver as well as with an ending that could have been maudlin, but instead comes across as haunting and an ending that will stick with viewers for a long time.

Mass is a meditation on grief, but also a testament to the power that communication can have in moving hearts and minds towards finding a new perspective on even the gravest of tragedies. Mass is a moving and painful testament to the horror behind the veneer of suburban society and that the only way to deal with prejudice, sorrow, and anger is to be honest and try to find common ground to move forward. Kranz’ film is a moving testament to the resilience of the human spirit and that the greatest atrocities can come from those we love we love the most and sometimes we can’t understand why tragedies happen, but we should try to find ways to learn from the past so we can grow from the experience.