“Mass,” a drama that consists of two couples seated across a table from each other in a placidly sterile church antechamber, discussing the unthinkable (two of them are the parents of a teenage boy who was killed in a school shooting; the other two are the parents of the shooter), is a movie you could easily imagine having been a stage play. I don’t say that just for the obvious reasons (spare contained setting, characters who do nothing but talk, etc.). “Mass” was written and directed by Fran Kranz, who has never made a movie before but is a veteran actor, and he has crafted the dialogue so that it builds and flows and surges, revealing and concealing at the same time, drawing us to the center of its rhythms. There’s a special pleasure to be had in seeing actors engage in this kind of winding conversational back-and-forth, which on stage can seize and hold you the way music does.
What the medium of movies can add is a sense of voyeuristic intimacy, and that’s the quality that “Mass” has. It’s like a slow-burn group confession that’s also a debate, and it invites us to take a journey into the souls of all four of these people. Sitting with them in that room, we travel somewhere. “Mass” might be described as a talk-therapy thriller that’s built out of memory — a psychodrama, a meditation, and a benediction, all at the same time. On some level the film is undeniably a conceit; it takes a highly explosive situation and gives it the rounded contours of a 12-step catharsis. Yet the writing is so deft, and the actors so committed, that by the end you feel you’ve touched the burning core of something real.
I wouldn’t say that revealing the premise of “Mass” counts as a “spoiler,” but the way Kranz has designed the drama, it takes a while to learn who these people are and why they’ve agreed to meet at a small Episcopal church, and there’s more to that delay than meets the eye. The hosts usher the participants into the anteroom with great care, as if they were preparing for a vital peace talk between two nations — and, in a sense, they are. And even if you do know the premise of the movie, it takes a bit of time to figure out which couple is which. That’s all quite intentional. “Mass,” among other things, is an inquiry into questions of guilt and innocence and the surprising ways they can overlap.
When an event as tragic, and horrific, as a school shooting takes place, our primal instinct — as individuals, as a society — is to want to know who or what to blame. How, after all, do we keep it from happening again? In recent years, however, the question of who or what to blame has been increasingly sucked up into the culture wars. The culprit is guns and gun laws! The culprit is mental illness! The culprit is first-person-shooter video games! The culprit is irresponsible parenting! All these issues are alluded to in “Mass,” but that doesn’t mean it’s a movie about definitive answers — or politics.
The massacre the film is about took place six years before, and we’re given to understand that its aftermath played out on the overbright canvas of media, with all the parents hauled in front of the cameras, interviewed over and over again. Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs), who lost lost their son in the violent attack (the weapons included not just guns but explosives), have been leaders of the aggrieved, and activists; what happened then now defines their lives. The anguish that can fade but can never die is etched onto their faces, but they introduce themselves to the officious Richard (Reed Birney) and the tremulous Linda (Ann Dowd), the parents of the shooter, by presenting them with a small bouquet, a kind of peace offering. These four, it’s implied, have traced one another for years and know everything there is to know about the case. So what’s to be gained?
What Gail and Jay want, most of all, is to be able to look Richard and Linda in the eye and ask: Is there something, in hindsight, you knew about your son that should have been a red flag? Something you were in denial of? The boy was troubled, and this has been chronicled; he was bullied. Linda and Richard still disagree about whether they should have moved, taking him out of the woodland setting he loved and into a more suburban place. Yet their refrain, stated in various ways, is: We didn’t know. We couldn’t have known. There’s no way anyone in our position could have known. Gail and Jay don’t believe this, and in different ways — Jay angry and grandstanding, Gail ruled by a grief that thirsts for consolation — they hammer away.
Kranz has drawn forceful performances from all four actors. Plimpton shows you how the bitter, wrathful sting of recrimination can take over a gentle soul, and Isaac seems to be ritually lacerating himself with the fury he can’t let go of. Birney, with his Midwest corporate blandness, strikes us as suspiciously detached until the scene in which he reveals that he holds the whole awful “choreography” of the shooting in his head, as if that could help him transcend it. And Dowd, in what may be the film’s richest performance, communicates something that seems subversive at first, until we begin to feel the sorrowful terror of it: that she, too, was victimized by who her son was.
What kind of an audience is there for a movie like “Mass”? Given the subject, maybe a modestly sized, intensely self-selective one. Yet the movie announces Fran Kranz as a bold new filmmaker who has earned the right to excavate a subject as sensitive as this one. In “Mass,” he peels away at it, holds it up to the light, and finally sees right into it. He makes a kind of moral promise to the audience, saying: If you don’t flinch, this film won’t either.