MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 reels
(Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers!)
Mass is a unique film. Ninety percent of the runtime takes place with only four actors in a small room. Yet it could not have been a play. I’ve only seen two other movies like it: 12 Angry Men and My Dinner with Andre. This is equally good if not better than those films. It is breathtaking how much writer/director Fran Kranz can do with so little, crafting a masterpiece of grief, anger, love, and forgiveness from just the words on the page and the actors’ interpretations. I walked out of theater knowing I had experienced a rare cinematic event.
Mass begins sparsely, with two church volunteers setting up a stark room at small, Protestant church. They chat about mundane issues—putting out snacks, locations of chairs, and whether choir practice can be heard from upstairs. Two middle-aged couples arrive and are briefly greeted by a therapist before being left alone in the room. The air is tense and uncomfortable, without any knowledge yet of what is occurring.
Slowly, the situation unfolds. Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) are the parents of Haden, a teenager who murdered several fellow students in school shooting before killing himself. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) are the parents of Evan, one of Haden’s victims. The meeting is an act of restorative justice designed to bring peace to both families. Over the course of two hours, the couples go back and forth—sometimes calm, sometimes enraged. Each pair wants to understand one another and help heal; but they also seek to defend their children, who are not present to defend themselves.
The writing, directing, and acting in Mass is the best I’ve seen this year and is among the best I’ve ever seen. Kranz starts with wide shots, each couple fully visible on screen. As the film progresses and the parents become more forceful and less guarded, the frame becomes smaller, focusing on individuals, and finally on faces. The writing also begins far more general. The parents are cordial and calm, trying to control their emotions while being specific with their words.
Gradually, they are more willing to express true feelings, even yelling and weeping. There are no heroes and villains here, just parents grieving for their children. Every audience member will recognize something of themselves in these characters.
Kranz also creates a brilliant device from a simple prop. Linda brings Gail a small bouquet of flowers in a vase as a peace offering. Originally, the vase is placed in the center of table but quickly removed as a distraction, showing Jay and Gail don’t trust Richard and Linda. Gradually, the flowers get moved around the room until Gail begins to open. She then puts the flowers near her and finally embraces them and takes them home at the end of film, demonstrating acceptance and closure.
Central to the narrative are Haden’s motives. Why did he kill? And why did he kill Evan? Much time is spent on Haden’s background. “What do you want to know?” Linda invites. “Everything.” Gail states flatly. “Everything? Why?” Linda wonders. “Because your son killed mine,” Gail cries.
There are the typical explanations: Haden was shy, he made bad friends, he played violent video games, he was depressed but was being treated. It goes on and on and on, but Richard refuses to call his son evil, much to Jay’s anguish. Richard’s denial is understandable for a parent. But it is ultimately insufficient. Haden committed a heinous sin of grave matter; he did something truly evil—and that label matters. This does not mean he is automatically damned, but it is important for his actions to be condemned, even by those who love him.
As I write this review, another massacre has occurred, this time in Norway with a bow and arrow of all things. The inability of mainstream culture to understand these events underscores the inadequacy of psychology or other human sciences regarding evil. It is fundamentally a spiritual problem, not a mental or emotional one.
The film ends with a beautiful act of forgiveness as Gail, quiet for most of runtime, unleashes a torrent of grace and tearfully forgives Richard, Linda, and Haden of any wrongdoing. They embrace as their final act together. Forgiveness is the only medicine that can ultimately heal, which is why it was Christ’s final request on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Justice is important and necessary, but only mercy redeems and restores.
There are some films that can only be viewed once; Mass is one of them. It is two hours of people talking, but without a single boring second. While one can disagree with some of its political or philosophical implications, it is impossible to deny the film’s power. St. John Paul II said that “terrible evil can only be conquered by equally terrible good.” Mass is terribly, terribly good.
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