Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 14th, 2021
Mass (Fran Kranz, 2021) 3½ out of 4 stars.
One of the wonders of engaged artistic expression, regardless of medium, is how it can lead us towards profound catharsis. Drama, especially, can be quite effective at this, its scripted narrative designed, if structured accordingly, for maximum effect. Still, some subjects prove especially challenging. How can one tackle a topic as horrific as a school shooting without somehow trivializing the horror? Then again, the Holocaust has been tackled often enough, and frequently well, so anything is possible. In his debut film as writer-director, actor Fran Kranz (Jungleland) presents a gripping emotional twister of a movie as two couples gather in a church to meet years after the violent tragedy that affected them in acute, if different, ways. Anger, blame, grief, and regret collide in a story as simple as it is brutal. Though some elements of the conceit don’t entirely work, by the end, we emerge deeply affected by what we have witnessed.
The title has a double meaning, given the location—an Episcopal church with rehearsal services going on above—and the reasons for the gathering. At the start, we first meet Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton, Honey Bee, and Jason Isaacs, Skyfire), who arrive with great trepidation to finally sit down with Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd, Rebecca, and Reed Birney, The Forty-Year-Old Version), whose therapist, Kendra (Michelle N. Carter) has helped arrange the whole thing. She gets there first, and in a series of everday interactions with church staff (one of whom is played by Breeda Wool, AWOL), inserted, no doubt, to remind us of the ordinary world that goes on no matter the circumstances, prepares the room where the fateful conversation will take place. Finally, the mundanity of setup complete, we get on with the business at hand.
It begins quietly enough, though soon the truth of the situation is revealed. The more they talk, the more we listen, everyone’s performances intense and mesmerizing. Each in turns speaks, then their dialogue overlaps, tensions running higher and higher. The how and the why of what brought them there blurs, even as our eyes focus closely on eyes and faces. Tears flow, but never gratuitously. Surprisingly for what is essentially a single-room setting that could easily turn static, the careful camera placement keeps our interest squarely on the action. And action there is, whether it be in gestures large and small, a mouth barely able to speak or, instead, roaring recriminations, and the occasional repositioning from the initial four-chair placement. There’s a marvelous ebb and flow to the proceedings that helps remove any sense of staging or artifice. Instead, we are flies on the wall of an admirable naturalism that makes the raw feelings on display land with ever greater urgency.
And then there are the peripheral details, which don’t function quite as well. Though Wool tries, her activities and forced nervousness never operate as the oppositional normality they are meant to be. Nor do the odd cuts to an outside fence with a red ribbon, though its purpose will become at least a little clearer in the final moments. Despite these ancillary details’ lack of power, the rest of the film offers enough emotive exorcism to overwhelm the occasional flaws. If there is beauty in absolute distress, Kranz has found it, transforming Mass into a sweeping, spiritual and deeply cinematic experience.