Mass is a wonderfully acted, if claustrophobic, ordeal of emotional pain. Perhaps against the odds, it achieves in its final moments a breakthrough of understanding and acceptance – and moves beyond its rather theatrically contrived confrontation, which may have been inspired by Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, filmed by Roman Polanski in 2011. But it’s impossible not to be affected by the sincerity of this debut from actor-turned-director Fran Kranz, whose film shows that the subject of school shootings and their aftermath can be treated without the ironised horror of, say, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.
The scene is a church in Idaho that has evidently offered its premises as the venue – a safe space, perhaps – for a healing encounter between the parents of a boy killed six years previously in a school shooting and the parents of the boy who killed him. (Franz allows us to register that there happens to be a slightly truculent young man volunteering at the church, who might resemble both of the boys.) Quite aside from the grief and despair, there is bad feeling about announcements made at the time through lawyers and the media, and now everyone needs closure.
Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney) are the shooter’s mum and dad: Linda is in agony, needing absolution from the other couple, or from her husband, or from God, or from the universe; Richard is more buttoned-up, angry, suspicious of the emotional loss of control required of him and incidentally also sceptical about the need for gun control. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) are tensely resolved that this meeting is their only way forward, ready to listen and forgive, but clearly very wary of any suggestion that their son’s death is somehow equivalent to the death of his attacker.
Mass is performed with impeccable intelligence and sensitivity, although sometimes it feels like an exercise in award-winning acting. But I admit it: the final, unexpected dialogue scene, though arguably as stagey and showy as everything else, does deliver a punch.