When I hear the name Fran Kranz, immediately the year 2012 flashes back to me and the time where I saw CABIN IN THE WOODS four times in one weekend. Along with this, he is more known for collaborations with Joss Whedon including DOLLHOUSE. He has has had a great acting career, but to say that he has crafted one of the finest directorial debuts in years is an understatement. MASS is truly an experience unlike anything I have ever seen before, mostly unfolding in a single room in a church between four adults all in grief in their own ways.
The movie opens on a common room in a church is the meeting place for two sets of parents. There are a few side characters including a social worker who sets up the meeting and a long-time worker at the church who is getting the setting ready, but our leads quickly come onto the “stage”, as it were, including Ann Dowd and Reed Birney playing the parents of a teenager who was behind a school shooting, and Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton play the parents of their child who was one of the victims. The shooting happened years ago and since then there have been years of lawsuits, blame, back-talk and yet there is also a need for these two sets of parents to meet and discuss what happened.
What’s fascinating about the premise of MASS is how the story unfolds here and as the dialogue between the parents slowly begins as polite and apologetic, but as beats in dialogue slowly start to reveal the cracks, all of our characters begin to break and the past comes back. I was worried that we would begin to see flashbacks or too much exposition but Kranz is so wise here to let this entire meeting unfold in real time and let the audience do some work in recreating what happened in their own minds.
This is not the first time we have had a movie in an intimate setting like this where all of the action unfolds in one sequence. Naturally, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE comes to mind where the conversations flow so beautifully and we make up the stories in our heads as it plays out. Roman Polanski’s dark comedy CARNAGE did the single setting almost like a play as four characters were all in a single apartment. The 2011 gem IN THE FAMILY had a nearly 45 minute deposition sequence that was a master class in beginning, middle and end of a story arc. I mention these as just examples and not to compare. MASS is very unique as while the church room is the main setting, there are also a few earlier sequences outside and surrounding the church, including a pivotal fence in a field that reveals its true nature later in the picture.
Everything is in the details. This particular room feels plain, but there are rules here. No, don’t put the box of tissues there…place it in the background so it’s not too obvious. The blinds should be set at a particular length. Both sets of parents need this to be a public meeting place, as minimalist as possible. All of these subtle but effective details leads to careful dialogue of reflecting on the high school shooting where all four leads tread carefully on their words, but in a way where I completely visualized all of their pasts and the horrific event that happened years ago. This movie isn’t just about school shootings and commentary on violence in our schools, but more about how parents react and bottle their grief and anger over the years and how they have evolved after the tragedy.
The four leads are such a powerhouse of acting that I don’t even know where to begin, yet they are all unique individuals who act and react differently throughout. Watch Martha Plimpton say next to nothing for the first half and then suddenly explode but still using her words carefully. Jason Isaacs is also quiet and reserved, but there are moments where he can’t help but fly off the handle. Reed Birney plays things more formal and feeling more in control than everyone, but we also begin to see his vulnerability. If I had to pick a favourite, and one that would lead to any kind of awards accolades, is Ann Dowd as the deeply conflicted mother who has a tearful final reveal leading to a resolution that absolutely shook me to my core.
Kranz’ framing and editing of this long conversation and its slow but powerful resolution is handled in such a careful way that you really don’t know where it is heading, and this is the kind of first movie as a director that filmmakers dream of. He has a unique style here; one particular edit that even changes the aspect ratio (don’t worry, no Boring Tech Notes here) is very original and as it continues, it adds to the overall effect of a human drama that feels so rare and unusual in this day & age of Marvel movies and reboots. It sounds cliche, but I can’t wait to see where he goes next.
MASS is now playing in very limited release in North America and will be available on Digital release shortly…do not miss. Thanks to MK2 Mile End and Route 504PR for sending along a copy for review.