Monday, November 8, 2021

The Tie That Binds: MASS

In Mass, the heartbreaking American issue of mass shootings is examined from various perspectives in the course of one fraught conversation. (The title is more complicated than one might assume at first glance—a ritual, an extent, a weight.) It sees one of these tragedies—how sad a viewer can’t say with any certainty which one of many this story is inspired by—only through spoken details and respectfully without flashback. A middle-aged couple who lost their teenage son in a school shooting some years earlier arrive in a church basement to meet the parents of the teenage boy who was the shooter. Both couples have suffered tremendous loss, and naturally there’s regret and anger, too. A therapist has said this might help them. These characters’ lives are forever bound together by the shooting. But what will they get from such direct confrontation with what has so irreparably torn their sense of normality, and with what can never be undone? This is a movie about profound cross-currents of grief and guilt.

First-time writer-director Fran Kranz, a veteran character actor best known from genre efforts like The Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse, has created a clear-eyed work of moral perspective and intense sympathy. The movie is deceptively simple. It’s set largely in one room. It’s visually restrained, with simple staging and lots of close-ups. It has barely any score. It has just four actors for most of its run time. And yet it builds out an entire emotional architecture in which to explore, a prism methodically turned until we can see all the angles without feeling preordained or overly schematic. This isn’t cheap tell-both-sides didacticism; nor is it full-throated activism. It’s strongly and persistently human. There are no clear solutions, leaving all involved struggling to understand, after all these years, the point at which their lives were violently changed forever. It becomes a quartet of a character study in a confined space, exploring what one must tell oneself to survive the unimaginable. One subtly heartbreaking exchange: “How could you believe that?” “Because I wanted to.”

The performers—Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton as the victim’s parents, and Ann Dowd and Reed Birney as the shooter’s—enter the picture calm and cautious. They clearly carry heavy burdens, but are tentatively polite, unwilling at first to open up lest they break right away. They all want to simply come to a new understanding of a tragedy that haunts them. As the conversation unfolds, in the kind of heightened realism to dialogue and monologues that would make this a powerhouse of a play, we see how each new decision to share something deep from within themselves is a choice, until it’s not. Characters burst forth with sorrowful contemplations, or retreat into defensiveness. The energy in the room shifts and stirs. The movie sits patiently in this hot-button issue, clearly saddened at the inability to make it right.

Because the movie is so stubbornly resistant to visual flourish—with really only one or two touches, like a narrowing aspect ratio in a moment of intense emotion, or a cutaway to a ribbon on a fence as a kind of pregnant pause—there is a continual focus on the dance of words between its characters. They give and take; they push and they retreat; they cry and they try to clearly express their deepest feelings. The encounter ends with a moment of one final unexpected, astonishing honesty, followed by a fortuitous moment of grace. (That Franz chooses that time for a last moment of staging and sound to build a lovely effect makes it all more softly surprising—and just right.) It doesn’t solve everything, or even anything. But it holds out hope of a possibility. And that’s almost a blessing in and of itself.

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