Mass is a movie that feels like a play. The basic gist is that four individuals are sitting around a table discussing the fallout from a school shooting which took the lives of many children, including their own. There are two couples. One played by Jason Isaacs & Martha Plimpton, and the other by Ann Dowd & Reed Birney. They’ve rented the back room of a church for their meeting, and outside of the lightly comical bookends involving church staff and a mediator, this tiny room is where we spend the entirety of the film.
It’s a foursome of dream roles for any actor interested in chewing heavy material. Each character is simultaneously a lead and a supporting role, with each performer capitalizing upon rotating opportunities to take center stage. I’m a terrible actor, but the hardest thing I’ve found about the process is learning to trust those with whom you share a scene. I can’t do it because I am a broken, degenerate, former stand-up comic, but I know it when I see it, and these performers are extremely generous to one another as the complicated conversation progresses.
The question is whether or not a dialogue heavy, single location script can validate a cinematic treatment. First time writer/director Fran Kranz finds the cinema in the faces of his performers, but does not employ uncomfortable close-ups to give them weight. Instead, thoughtful-but-simple shot composition gives this tense proceeding room to breathe, all while managing the high-wire act of keeping the audience engaged. It’s not a one take movie, but the flow of events sure feels like it.
There are moments when certain emotional turns seemingly come out of left field. None are egregiously off-base, but there were a few moments where it felt like some transitional dialogue could have helped. That said, it’s impossible to predict how someone will react to tragedy, and I’ve lived a a life of minimal trauma, so I’ll reserve my judgment.
Kudos to Kranz for maintaining a through-line of hope and positivity through what should be some really bleak stuff. He even manages to slide in some well-balanced humor (which feels natural if you’ve seen some of his many acting roles — he’s a funny guy). It seems illogical for a narrative about a school shooting to go down so smoothly, but it does. Kudos also to Martha Plimpton, who, despite having just as much material to traverse as anyone else on screen, steals the movie for me. Perhaps it’s a latent ‘80s crush I’m nursing, but I’d like to attribute it to the complexity of her performance. Very well done.
Part of the Philadelphia Film Festival, October 20-30, 2021; filmadelphia.org/festival