‘Mass’ Is A Devastatingly Honest Conversation About The Aftermath Of A School Shooting: LFF Review

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This film is being screened as part of the 2021 BFI London Film Festival and you can find all of our coverage of the festival here


After gaining buzz at Sundance earlier this year, Fran Kranz’s riveting debut has its UK premiere at the London Film Festival.

★★★★★

If there’s any film this year that will challenge you both emotionally and mentally, then this airtight chamber piece is sure to be it. Written and directed by first-time director Fran Kranz, who previously starred in Dollhouse and The Cabin in the Woods, Mass requires heavy investment from its audience as it portrays the aftermath of a truly horrifying event. Those who stick with it, however, will be thoroughly rewarded with a deeply powerful experience that is gripping but also candid in its approach.

The plot is simple, but shatteringly effective. Following a mass school shooting six years ago, Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail Perry (Martha Plimpton), who’s son was killed that day, meet face-to-face in a church with the perpetrator’s parents, Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd). The rest of film is predominantly taken up by this conversation between the parents and although both parties are searching for answers, they’re also uncovering more questions.

The opening 20 minutes sets an uneasy tone as a visibly anxious Judy (Brenda Wool) is busily prepping the room, with every furniture move and table configuration carefully figured out for this unique occasion. But once the groundwork is laid, both parents are seated and their therapist Kendra (Michelle N. Carter) closes the door behind them, we are firmly sealed inside and not let out until their discussion has run its course. No flashbacks, no toilet breaks, just four people confronting the unspeakable horrors of their past and a box of tissues in the corner for an emergency.

It’s an audacious premise from a first time director like Kranz that sounds unbearable to watch, and rightly so. Ryan Jackson-Healy’s cinematography and Yang Hua Hu’s editing is deliberately minimal, allowing us to focus on the developing conversation at hand. The foursome’s meeting begins with polite compliments, but it’s clear from Gail and Jay’s nervy expressions that they have a motive and are searching for the right moment to start plugging away at Richard and Linda. Kranz’s script is masterful in its meticulous handling of these points, and there’s something impressive about its gradual build up that’s both precise and effortlessly natural.

As we uncover more about the events of that day, the four leads really start to come into their own as they arguably produce career-best performances in their parts. Reed Birney and Ann Dowd arguably have the tougher roles in portraying parents of someone who committed truly unforgiving acts. But what’s astonishing about their performances is a sheer emotional honesty in the love for their son that might be hard to swallow but is understandable even in the confines of the room. Likewise, Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton step up to the task as a couple pursuing any sign of guilt that validates their own, but what they ultimately find is not what they expected. As this tough conversation eventually climaxes in a moment of outpouring grief, the emotions on display from Isaacs are so raw, so devastating that for a split second you’d swear this fictional scenario was happening in real time before your tearful eyes.

After viewing this twice, Mass might be the hardest film I’ve had to watch all year. It asks you to commit heavily towards a sensitive subject matter with no compromises, and demands your full attention. But if you do commit, you will be rewarded with an ensemble piece that is both riveting and enlightening, centred on a contemporary issue that sadly still requires urgent discussions.

The Verdict

Emotionally honest, deeply powerful and anchored by four formidable actors at the top of their game, Mass is a thought-provoking drama that will leave you utterly breathless. It’s without doubt one of the best films of the year.

Words by Theo Smith


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