Fran Kranz’ Mass is a film that is going to have critics going after each other for its various choices, and its ability to deliver anything substantive within its wildly narrow frame. I pick on critics because sadly, few others are going to bother with it. It’s a film about tragedy, grief, a fairly focused look at the survivors of inexplicable events, and for nearly all of its runtime, four people sit around a table talking. That isn’t “crowd-pleaser” material.
The film opens with 15-20 minutes of irrelevant characters preparing a room in a church for a meeting no one will talk about, and if anything is going to be mistakenly criticized, it’s the film’s entry. A thoroughly “irritatingly friendly” woman (played to perfection by Breeda Wool), who has some position or other at this church, trips over herself with her desire to make a nondescript room and folding table into some vehicle for the perfection of human interaction, and the audience has no idea why. She’s nervous, almost outright scared, and all because… well, someone is about to show up… for some reason.
It becomes its own surreptitious investigation into the human psyche, and how grief can radiate out from those who are actually experiencing it. It’s also an idea that could easily lose its way, becoming either comical or frustrating, but it pulls just enough and is confident to leave the mood it creates sticking to the blank walls.
Soon enough, Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) arrive, though there’s a break before they make it to the room because Gail just isn’t sure she can go through with… whatever this is. Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney) are just behind them, and once the formalities are out of the way, the quartet is shut in their “prepared space.”
It’s an effort that feels like it was originally a play, and were that the case, the reviews would all point out the mistake in trying to take this story away from its true medium. Solid as the performances are, and as much as the script is clever and raw in its first half, the power and intimacy never truly makes it through. By the point things get their best chance, most of the characters have devolved from frighteningly real “particulars” to bullet point “every survivors,” who are about sharing political platitudes as emotions.
The infuriating thing is that if the second half (or perhaps the final third) could have kept pace with the film’s beginning, this would have been one for the ages. It’s hard to relay any uniqueness to grief, especially in the opening effort to not reveal things, thus Gail’s struggle is somewhat pedestrian initially, but the interactions between Jay and Gail are stunningly “this couple,” and “these people.” These are people who have not only been married and set themselves in their ways, but know exactly when there is nothing to say because they have been beaten down by their experience.
In a variety of ways that big-budget films never explore any part of human existence, Mass delivers ugly honesty. Jay, to one extent or another, hides behind finding the reasoning behind things, when all he wants is someone to suffer. Richard and Linda, whose marriage didn’t survive the ordeal, are clearly at cross purposes in coping, and Richard, at least, can hardly stomach the role he’s forced into, despite a certain desire to manage some role.
As details come out like the peeling of an onion, the characters slowly become the “media depictions” they repeatedly demand they aren’t. Jay asks Richard if he’s “seen the studies,” as though this is just another day at the office trolling Facebook. Worst of all, the further we get into things the less it seems like these are people who have been in counseling for years, or have in fact hashed any of this at all, despite almost constantly complaining about their lives becoming nothing but rehashing things.
When things wrap, no one has gotten anywhere, and our group leaves just as buried in “social niceties” as when they entered. There’s a certain exposure of the fraudulence of personality, and perhaps personhood, that is wonderfully unnerving, but as most of the third act feels like a sham, it doesn’t sell the way it should.
It’s a movie that dares what most won’t. It dares you even to have any interest in something that won’t reveal itself. Like Richard, it is, despite the lack of political correctness involved, becoming bored with the repetition of the same old story. But, then it doesn’t dare to let the characters stray from the script of “what characters like this would say,” and let them just deliver “these characters,” no matter where they end up. That would have been worth experiencing, and would have made the end hit you like a sledgehammer.