Review: Mass

One of the classic challenges for filmmakers is to take a story that was written for the stage and “open it up” for the screen. There are a variety of ways to do this, but it mostly involves creating a visual complement to the dialogue while providing at least an excuse for watching it on a screen. Probably the most famously successful example is Amadeus, but A Streetcar Named Desire was no less successful because Elia Kazan didn’t “open it up,” and that was because the acting was organically connected to the writing, and the direction—the camera placement, the lighting, the blocking—honored that connection. 

Perhaps because he’s an actor first, Fran Kranz’s debut as a writer-director for films is focused on the words and how they’re expressed. He inverts the classic challenge in Mass, producing a script that seems better suited for the stage and actually filming it that way. The bulk of the movie takes place in a conference room in a rural church. All four characters sit around a table and talk. That’s pretty much it, and yet Mass doesn’t feel like a filmed play. The opening scenes contain hints of a mystery. Employees and volunteers at the church set up the room where the action will take place, making small talk and church gossip and only lightly touching on the purpose of the preparation. A woman shows up to inspect the preparation and carefully but sternly makes instructions that indicate the people who will be using the room need everything to be a certain way, even if they don’t know it.

The four people who show up comprise two couples—Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs), and Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney)—who, it turns out, have never met in person, though their lives have been linked in misery for more than a decade, when the latter couple’s son brought a gun to school and murdered some students, including the former couple’s son, before killing himself. The trials and media circuses are in the past, and thought it isn’t completely clear, it appears that Gail and Jay have been wanting this meeting for years, because they demand to know why it happened and believe talking to Linda and Richard will help in that process. Naturally, the ensuing discussion is fraught with pain, resentment, and a desperate hope that some sort of “closure” can be achieved. 

Surprisingly, what Kranz’s script gets right is the clinical stuff—the legal details, the ancillary controversies involving guns and male rage, the failure of the usual psychology tropes—all of which the quartet discusses as if recalling an extremely exhausting graduate school program. Kranz is less effective with the emotional component, how nothing that Linda can say about her love for a mass murderer will ever assuage Gail’s depression and anger, or how Richard’s taking responsibility for his son’s pathology because he worked too much is, at bottom, even more of a cop out than not taking responsibility. But, as with something like Streetcar, the actors understand what’s expected of them and they bring real gravity to the dialogue and their characters. It’s powerful because they know it has to be, and make it work by showing how the purpose of the meeting can never be achieved. It can only be stated and made clear to all the participants, who leave the encounter with more questions but perhaps new insights into how to answer them.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

Mass home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 7 Eccles Street LLC

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