By Jacob Sahms
Mass opens outside of an Episcopal church, as two members of the church prepare a room for a special meeting. More characters are slowly introduced, as a pair of couples assembles to have a conversation that will last ninety minutes in real time. For the most part, the appearances are benign, calm, except that one couple comes seeking answers about their dead son, shot dead by the other couple’s son in a school shooting.
Through the first thirty minutes of the film, writer/director Fran Kranz’s script refuses to let the audience know which son is which. Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) play one couple, while Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) play the other. Each actor involved reflects the kind of emotional response that one would expect in this case, slowly oozing out their back story and relation to the two young men who are the reason they have been brought together.
Through the ninety-plus minutes of the conversation between the couples, the emotional give-and-take between the foursome refuses to allow the audience to place blame. Of course, there’s one young man who chose to pull a trigger and end the life of another, but with all of life, it’s complicated. Rather than come up with trite arguments for or against guns, proposing or discounting mental health issues, or solely laying blame at the feet of nature or nurture, Mass draws the audience in and demands that the audience consider what it means to be fully human and to live in community.
There are few films with the devastating emotional power of Mass, the power to rip your heart beating out of your chest and grind it on the floor, only to lift it back up again and set the fragile, repaired visual of your soul back in your chest. The scars remain but the heart beats stronger for it. And that seems largely to the credit of Kranz, through his direction and his sharply refined script, and the incredible acting chops of his four principle stars.
As an aside, the setting of the church of course matters, and probably not as the audience expects in the opening scenes. There’s a strange set of characters, members of the church (Breeda Wool and Kagen Albright), who set the table for the conversation, literally and metaphorically, while representing all of the quirkiness of real church life. [Disclaimer here: I’m a full-time pastor.] The conversation is occurring in the church basement as worship practice happens upstairs, and the human response to the two couples from these normal church people is both inquisitive and sympathetic, slightly repulsed and also compassionate. It’s wonderfully.. Normal.
That set-up makes what happens among these four people, in their hearts individually, as couples, as parents, as humans, as broken hearts, all the more powerful. It’s a horrific thing that’s depicted and discussed, sans flashback, with the crucifix hanging on the wall between them. And yet it’s a mighty example of what humans are called to wrestle with everyday: grief, service, loss, vengeance, hope, anger, joy, memory, forgiveness, peace.
Mass serves as an announcement that Kranz has arrived as a writer and a director, and a reminder to all who experience that two-hour catharsis of pain and the only hope we have for recovery: forgiveness. And it may be the most organically gospel-centric film that I’ve seen in a long time.