Monday, June 06, 2022

"Mass": review

[WARNING: spoilers.]

A timely movie—at least for me, given the recent Uvalde school shooting—"Mass" is the 2021 story of two sets of parents who agree to meet each other in a church in the years-long aftermath of an initially unnamed tragedy. The film is directed by first-time helmer Fran Kranz (a guy, in case that's not obvious).

The movie opens quietly enough at the beginning of a day at a local Episcopal church. An older man is seen in the sanctuary, teaching a young kid how to play the piano; a harried-looking mom arrives and finds her teenaged son in the church's basement kitchen, doing the dishes. The mom asks her son to help her prepare a quiet room for a group of guests who will be needing it later in the day; the movie's focus then turns to the guests themselves. First, we meet Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), the parents of Sophie and Evan. Arriving soon after are Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd), the parents of Hayden and Stephen. What follows is a tense, awkward, and heart-wrenching dialogue as the four parents explore the question of what made Hayden snap and kill a bunch of schoolchildren, including Evan.

It takes a while for us even to know what the meeting is all about. The dialogue begins with hints that something is wrong, that these parents aren't meeting for any happy reason. Both sides start off civil and circumspect, but as tensions rise, Richard and Linda defensively ask why Jay and Gail want to know so much about Hayden, and Gail says it's because their son killed hers. Before that moment, it was obvious that some party was guilty of something; Jay and Gail even express regret for things they had said when the couples last saw each other. But, no: Richard and Linda have the dubious distinction of being the parents of a mass murderer (and this gives us a hint that the film's title has several layers).

We are treated to descriptions of Evan's and Hayden's childhoods, and to discussions of how the kids' respective siblings are handling life now. Jay and Gail claim they don't want to interrogate Richard and Linda, but there are moments when the discussion gets heated, and they end up doing just that. Together, the parents explore the question of gun control (Jay turned into an energetic gun-control activist after the death of his boy), the role of violent video games, and the question of whether Hayden was simply wired wrongly. It's a messy discussion, and from my perspective, a sloppy one. I saw issues that the parents missed, such as the idea that insanity and rationality are not mutually exclusive. But the point of the movie isn't to present a meaty philosophical exploration of the mind of a murderer; it's an exploration of grief and guilt from multiple angles—emotional, not intellectual.

"Mass" is a minimalist drama. As I watched the movie, I got the distinct impression that it must have been a stage play before it was adapted for the silver screen. While the beginning and end of the movie serve as bookends with minor characters in the form of church staff, the middle of the movie is just four characters around a table, pouring their hearts out to each other. This is, then, an actor's movie, and each character is given several moments to shine. Jay does his best to be polite, but he's obviously repressing a great deal of anger. His wife Gail starts off not even wanting to go to this meeting, but once she's there, she is by turns demanding, accusatory, disbelieving, and understanding. Richard comes off as stiff and a bit tone-deaf; he reminded me a lot of my own father. Even at the very end, after everyone is emotionally exhausted, Richard is eager to leave because he's got a business meeting to attend. Gail, Richard's wife, is quiet and sad; she's dealing with the paradox of having a mother's love for her child (Hayden is also dead: he shot himself at the conclusion of his school rampage) while realizing that she had unwittingly raised a murderer. But Richard does have a moment of humanity: when Jay accuses him of not knowing what really happened to all the kids who were Hayden's victims, Richard begins a recitation of the kids' names, also noting where they were wounded and how they died. It's a moment that shows Richard had, in fact, been punishing himself for his son's deeds by imprinting his son's sins onto his own soul.

The way "Mass" proceeds by indirection to the heart of the matter—only alluding to the tragedy at first and then slowly revealing it to us—is a technique that, in less capable hands, could have been annoying. (Some critics derisively use the term "pronoun game" to describe the scriptwriterly tendency to hint at something via vague language so as to let us know that a reveal is coming later.) But director Fran Kranz handles the story quite capably, and he's helped by a group of actors who all hit their marks perfectly. You can't come away from a searing, depressing film like "Mass" saying that you like the film, given its subject matter, but you can certainly say you respect it, as I do. Kranz also wrote the script; I have to give him credit there, as well, for providing dialogue that may have contained some obvious writerly curlicues, but that also felt authentic as an exploration of raw parental grief.

Would I have the fortitude to sit across the table from the parents of the deranged child who murdered my child? I can't say. I suspect I'd want to engage in a violent form of physical therapy, demanding answers with each bone I managed to crack. But "Mass" never goes that route—doesn't even consider it. This is, ultimately, a very Christian movie in terms of the cardinal virtue it preaches: forgiveness. The ability to forgive, to let go, to move on without losing the memory of those we love—that's what this movie is ultimately about, and it presents this virtue without preaching, miracles, swelling music, melodrama, or other fanfare. The story is reserved but intense, and maybe, in some way, the movie points toward hope for those who have suffered tragedy and are dealing with feelings of grief, loss, guilt, and anger. While I'm generally not a fan of movies that overtly bill themselves as "Christian" movies, I'd call "Mass" a Christian movie done right, and one worth seeing.


John Mac said...

Nice review. Regarding the parent who became a gun control advocate--did the film avoid taking a political position on such issues? You don't mention it, so I assume it was not the focus. We have enough political propaganda; it's a plus if the movie just tells a story and lets viewers reach their own conclusions.

John Mac said...

I'm with you, I don't mind using a knife to cut my meat, but I don't want to have to saw through it either. Cooking something for 48 hours is mind-boggling to me, good luck!

Kevin Kim said...

The film avoided the temptation to be preachy. The focus was on dealing with grief and other baggage.

John Mac said...

Geez, I see I left my comment on your meat post here. Another milestone on my road to Biden-land. Damn.