The four principle characters in Mass are individuals you hope you never have to personally identify with. They’re each going through incredible grief and pain, having suffered unimaginable loss. The cost and toll on themselves has been terrible. There isn’t even necessarily a light at the end of the tunnel. And yet, they go on, because they must. The emotions of that feeling are brilliantly captured in this film, easily the best movie I’ve seen this year at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. What writer/director Fran Kranz, along with his cast, achieves here is nothing short of staggering. It may prove to be difficult to convince audiences to seek this one out, but if handled correctly, it’s an awards player down the line.
Mass may have the bleakest premise imaginable, but it’s not a completely moribund experience. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a serious drama, but it’s handled realistically, not melodramatically. Nothing that happens is beyond what we might have seen in a documentary about the parents of a school shooting situation. Of course, what makes this unique is that one of the two couples had their son commit the acts. That turn of the screw ultimately pays major dividends, too.
The film centers on a meeting between two sets of parents. Taking place in a back room of a church, it’s a meeting that’s been in the works for some time. Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs) are clearly in pain, with the former unsure if she can even go through with the meeting. They go in, eventually, and soon are joined by Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney). A bit of light chatter ensues, before they begin talking. Soon, it becomes clear that both of their sons are dead. Before long, we learn that Linda and Richard’s boy committed a mass shooting at his school, with one of the victims being Gail and Jay’s son, leading them to become gun control advocates.
As the conversation evolves, Gail and Jay go on the offensive, probing Linda and Richard. They want to know how they raised a monster. Of course, the couple claims they couldn’t have known, that there were no signs, etc. The longer they talk, the more layers that reveal themselves. Of course, their children aren’t coming back, but this conversation may allow each of them to start the healing process. It won’t be easy, but their lives haven’t been easy since one act ruined them all.
These are four of the best performances you’ll see in 2021. Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton never once hit a wrong note. Dowd, Isaacs, and Plimpton especially have some strong showcases in the second half. Birney stays more composed than the other three, doing some heavy lifting in his own way, but it’s no less of a remarkable turn. At the same time, this is arguably the best work from everyone in the cast. Dowd is maternal and kind, belying the boy she raised. Isaacs is all passion, needing to find answers and confessions. Then, there’s Plimpton, who enters unsure if she can forgive these people. Watching her face as she takes everything in will break your heart. Isaacs’ fury will stick with you, but so too will some of Plimpton’s final moments. Each of them leaves a mark, to be sure.
Actor turned filmmaker Fran Kranz makes a stunning directorial debut. Best known for his amusing role in The Cabin in the Woods, Kranz showcases an incredible handle on volatile material. His direction holds tight on their faces, leaning in to every single emotion. Kranz’s script is just as impressive, crafting a complex yet sadly all too familiar situation. Immediately, I can’t wait to see what Kranz opts to do behind the camera next.
Mass will devastate you, yes, but it will also move you. To be sure, some people won’t even give this one a shot. Hopefully, raves out of Sundance like this one will help, since this movie is just incredible. The film is powerful and will stay with you for quite some time. It’s the highlight of the fest and likely is headed towards a prestige release later on this year. Keep an eye out for it, provided you can handle the premise.