MASS – Review
Is there anything harder for a parent than the loss of a child? That heartbreak is at the center of the drama MASS, in which one couple who suffered such a loss meets years later with the couple whose child was responsible for that loss. Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton play one of the two couples, Gail and Jay. who have agreed to meet with the other parents, Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney). The meeting is to take place in around a table in a small room of an Episcopal church, in a town in a Western state. The meeting has been arranged by a therapist who has been working with Gail and Jay. It has the look of a “truth and reconciliation” meeting to help both couples get past what happened.
That is not giving away any more than is in the film’s trailer. Exactly what did happen, and even which son is the killer and which the victim, is not clear at the film’s start, a deliberate choice by first-time director, but long-time actor, Fran Kranz. The carefully written script, also by Kranz, slowly brings out details of the events, as the actors develop and reveal aspects of their characters, giving the drama much more suspense than if the film had laid all cards on the table to start. The therapist and the couples know the facts but the audience does not. The meeting of the two couples is tense, even wary, and a sense of anger and sorrow permeates the room.
Eventually it is revealed that the killing happened during a school shooting six years earlier. The four parents have dealt with the aftermath in differing ways, and one couple, Richard and Linda, have divorced, although they are still cordial to each other. Most of the drama takes place in the church meeting room with a lead-in sequence, in which the therapist inspects the room while a hovering church worker makes too many helpful suggestions, which serves to pique our curiosity.
Of course, it is hard to avoid the sense of a stage play with a drama set largely in a single room. What makes for searing drama on stage does not always translate to the big screen. But director Franz deals with this problem first by shifting angles and moving the characters about the space, but largely by revealing the information, about what happened and who these people are, in carefully paced bits. The drama also rests heavily on the skill of the cast, who exceed expectations as each slowly reveals their characters. Who they seem to be in the scene where they first meet changes over the course of the shifting drama, as new facts are revealed.
Martha Plimpton’s Gail is seething with barely suppressed anger even before the meeting, anger we glimpse in a scene with her and Jay before the two couples meet face-to-face in the church room. It looks at one point as if she will back out at the last minute, and the couple have an exchange about something she has come to say. By contrast, Ann Dowd’s Linda seems more open, even eager to reach out, offering Gail flower arrangement as a gift. It leads to the first of many awkward moments as Gail politely thanks her but does not reach out to accept them, a fore taste of the back-and-forth emotional dance to come.
The scene also illustrates the careful construction of each moment in the film and the skill of the performers. Eventually, the ice breaks and bit by bit, facts and feelings come out, as one side seeks to know if there were a hints that could have prevented what happened and the other struggles with the answers.
Richard seems the most wary and reserved at the beginning, speaking about agreed to contracts and seeking to avoid acknowledging anything or sharing details that could lead to legal action. By contrast, the more open Jay has devoted his life to activism on school shootings. As the meeting goes into deeper emotional depths, Richard’s surface gradually cracks a bit, exposing raw unspoken feelings, and Jay begins questioning what his work really has accomplished in the ensuing years. Questioning and self-doubt, admissions and denial all swirl through the charged atmosphere.
Outstanding performances are the key to MASS, which it has in abundant. All the actors are excellent but Ann Dowd is the standout. The discussions thoughtfully explore the variety of issues that have been raised by school shootings, such as debates over guns, violent video games, and the political aspects that have grow up around them. At the same time, these characters grapple with their own complex, sometimes conflicting emotions – anger, regret, guilt, grief – all of which are on both sides in some fashion, leading slowly towards forgiveness and acceptance.
The subject matter, and the film’s structure as a drama built around discussion, means there is a limit on the kind of audience MASS will draw. But the drama offers much, with its thoughtful, complex discussion of difficult subjects, its delving into human nature and the human heart, and its stellar, multi-layered performances. There are no easy answers and there are no uncomplicated people nor personal stories in MASS.
MASS opens Friday, Oct. 22, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema and other theaters.
RATING: 3 out of 4 stars