If you were going to choose someone to write and direct a state-of-the-nation address for America, one that tackles immense societal ills through a tiny, intimate four-hander about grief, the most obvious choice might not be a protégé of post-Buffy Joss Whedon and his trademark glibness. Yet Fran Kranz, star of Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods, has achieved something truly immense with his behind-the-camera debut, Mass, a taut and lacerating character study done almost entirely in real time in one location, an audacious gamble that pays off with one of the year’s most singularly affecting films.
The single location is a church annex in non-descript American suburbia, neutral ground for a meeting between two sets of parents – Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), and Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney) – a few years after a horrific school shooting, in which Jay and Gail’s son Evan was killed by Linda and Richard’s son Hayden. It’s an immediately wrenching premise of an attempt at healing (or even salvation), the two pairs initially struggling through some choked small talk that sets you on edge before the depth of hurt in the room can finally be unveiled.
Kranz’s script is walking an incredibly fine tightrope from start to finish, but it never wobbles. Political differences are hinted at but never used as an opportunity to grandstand, while the expressions of grief feel devastatingly real. Kranz never once makes the easy choice or descends into melodrama (there isn’t even any swearing here, which feels quietly remarkable), instead digging down into the messier reality. Jay and Gail pathologise and blame, while Linda and Richard are forced onto the defensive, which is what you might expect on paper, but in practice Kranz keeps things so alive that you’re never sure where the conversation will go, and absolutely never allows you to pick sides.
Linda and Richard are victims too – Hayden killed himself at the end of his shooting spree – but have been denied their grief, and Dowd and Birney do incredible jobs at communicating the competing feelings of loss and guilt. Theirs are perhaps the more complex roles, but everyone here is absolutely exceptional, with career-best performances across the board. Isaacs and Plimpton are by turns furious and empathetic and also manage to tell the story of a decades-long relationship with single lines and simple gestures, constantly pulling one another back from the precipice of unretractable anger. Mass is, of course, very stagy, but the whole cast is so good, and use the space so well, that this is never a hindrance, and the airless claustrophobia that Kranz manages to conjure in the room is the perfect fit for such a discomforting story.
Throughout Mass you’ll switch between cringing and crying all the way up to a gut-punch ending that will leave you dazed. It’s never an easy watch, but it’s always a gripping one, asking big questions about the power, and limitations, of conversation and forgiveness, led by four extraordinary star performances from actors who are too rarely given this much room to breathe on the big screen.