Once the Healing Starts
By Noah Gittell
“Mass” is about the aftermath of a school shooting, and you should know that going in. For some viewers, the heightened emotions will be too much to bear. Even reading this review might be too upsetting. I don’t blame them. A few years ago, I watched “Vox Lux”, the opening scenes of which dramatized a mass shooting at a middle school. It was so unsettling that I couldn’t give the rest of the film a fair shake.
At least “Mass” doesn’t show the shooting itself. Instead, it focuses on two sets of parents trying to find peace several years after the incident. Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs) lost their teenage son in the act perpetrated by the son of Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney), who are now divorced. The group meets in the anteroom of a church and after exchanging some of the most awkward pleasantries ever committed to film, they get down to the business of trying to heal.
Strangely, it’s in these early moments that “Mass” is most effective. Much more is revealed in the withholding of their true feelings than in their unadulterated expression. As we watch Jay lead Gail into the room and take the lead in the conversation, we get a sense for how they have gotten through their trauma: he feels it’s his job to protect her. The stilted early banter between the two sets of parents — “How did you get here?” “Did you drive?” “Are you heading back tonight?” — give the actors opportunities to reveal complex emotion through choices: the way Isaacs stumbles over a word, a sharp look from Plimpton (the queen of sharp looks), or how a certain word triggers them to shut their eyes, holding the flood of emotions in.
Once the dam breaks, however, the film has nowhere to go. The centerpiece of “Mass” is a no-holds-barred argument in which the bereaved parents grapple with blame and accountability by saying exactly what’s on their mind at any given moment. It’s catnip for actors but dramatically inert. Think of the best films about therapy, like “Ordinary People” or “Good Will Hunting”, which wisely limit the emotional honesty to just a few minutes towards the end. “Mass” tries to make a meal out of them. The actors chew voraciously on each line, but once they turn up the dial to maximum intensity, it leaves the story without any dynamic tension. The emotions are raw and compelling, but the story is shapeless.
“Mass” is the debut feature from actor Fran Kranz, who wrote and directed. He displays a gift for dialogue, but his directing is so laissez-faire that it wanders into absenteeism. Its one-room setting is admittedly a limitation, but all you must do is look at Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” to see how a film set in a single location can still be visually compelling. Instead, Kranz simply cedes the film to the performances. This might seem like a thoughtful and sensitive approach in theory, but good acting must be supported by good directing. Without it, “Mass” feels like an acting class exercise. The central quartet is doing courageous work — I can only imagine what it must have been like to live with these traumatized characters for the duration of the shoot — and they deserve better than Kranz’s hands-off attitude. The film suffers for it. As do we.
There have been several attempts to fictionalize school shootings for film, and I’m not sure any have been effective. Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” was the most compelling because it handled its material matter-of-factly, simply showing us a day in the life of the shooter. Other attempts, like the strained “Vox Lux” or this year’s reactionary “Run Hide Fight” missed the mark in completely different ways. The fatal flaw of “Mass” in trying to expose the hidden emotions of grief, guilt, and resentment surrounding this national crisis is that they’re not in any way hidden. We have all been openly devastated by these tragedies for years. “Mass” treats these emotions like revelations, but you can’t learn very much from what you already know.
“Mass” opens in theaters on October 8.