Mass: the movie that dares to explore the unimaginable pain of school shootings

It’s understandable if your first question of the movie Mass, set six years in the aftermath of a school shooting in the US, is: why watch? Why submerge oneself in the unimaginable grief of two families who lost their sons that day – one, Ray (Jason Isaacs) and Gail’s (Martha Plimpton), at the hands of the other, mourned only by his parents, Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney).

Mass, written and directed by actor Fran Kranz, takes on the delicate and daunting task of bridging the depressingly familiar and the completely unthinkable. There is so much that has been said about the complete insanity of routine mass shootings in the US – the grief, frustration, bitterness of families, the cliched reactions of everyone else, necessarily laundered and recycled: “No Way To Prevent This, Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” as the Onion headline that has run 18 times since 2014 says. It is also impossible to fully capture the truly unfathomable grief of being on the other side of the numbing headlines.

But with the help of four tour de force performances, the film navigates between two poles – neither too numbingly recognizable, or too paralyzingly horrific – to provide an exercise in empathy for the viewer, to find clarity in the unsolvable messiness of blame. It’s an excruciating watch – I fidgeted through the whole thing, discomfort at the limits of what I could and would allow myself to feel – but not an excessive or impossible one. It’s the rare film to engage with such a fraught, charged, leaden topic as school shootings and not collapse under the weight of circular conversations.

It does so by being intensely and exclusively personal. Mass takes place almost entirely in the sparsely decorated basement room of an Episcopalian church somewhere in the mountain west (it was filmed in Idaho). There are no flashbacks to lives prior, no snippets of media; photos Gail shows Linda and Richard of her son Evan are turned away from the viewer. Franz’s camera hovers around the nondescript folding table, never exiting the room before the characters. The script traces the entire arc of conversation – nervous politeness, simmering distrust, confrontation, a jagged understanding – between the two sets of parents, unchaperoned by a lawyer or therapist and unbounded from any neat conclusion. You can maybe glean the couples’ political leanings, but they’re extraneous to an hour fueled by emotional recognition – the need to feel understood – if not catharsis.

Kranz’s scripts metes out enough details over 122 minutes for one to get the barest outlines of what happened to the couples’ teenage sons, but the pacing allows the audience to supply most of the context from their own supercuts of news coverage dating back to Columbine. You don’t need much of a description from Richard about the TV’s eagle-eye view of the school, or from Jay about his activism the past couple years, or Gail about the last families left waiting in the gym, for you to conjure images, headlines, reports, interviews from Parkland, Sandy Hook, Orlando, El Paso, and others.

Each of the four main performers are deft handlers of such heady, combustible, gnarly emotions – grief, of course, but also fury, indignation, envy, pettiness, relief, defensiveness. It’s perhaps trite to say the film lingers in the messiness of things unresolved – Jay and Gail want to dump blame on Richard and Linda for their son, who had abundant mental health problems; the shooter’s parents want their grief honored, too; nothing in this exercise stops anyone or brings anyone back. But so much of how we talk about shootings now, about aftermath, about “moving forward”, feels trite. That’s what happens when the same thing, or variations of it, happens again and again, when a country and a media-consuming public becomes habituated to horror.

For Mass to work, it has to not only cut through that horror but mold it into something beyond a slog, or torture porn; there has to be an emotional, personal point to listening, one that also doesn’t dovetail into some larger point about how this all could turn into something better. That search for meaning propels Jay and Gail into the room with Linda and Richard – although, if you even start to imagine the outlines of their grief, you probably already figured that. In a standout moment from an absolutely standout performance, Plimpton’s Linda finally admits, an hour-plus into the conversation and repulsed to a back corner chair, that she showed up hoping to turn her son’s life into something meaningful, as if the memories weren’t enough.

The question of utility – what is all this feeling for? – courses throughout the film. Again and again, Mass brings viewers to the threshold of unprocessable, completely abyssal emotions. There’s a limit to what it can do – on a structural level, obviously, but also on an emotional one. It doesn’t explicitly advocate for nor change lax gun laws in this country; neither can it impart exactly what it feels like to cross over into your worst nightmare and keep going.

I left the theater feeling my empathy capacitor stretched and kneaded, without answers or coherence. Mostly, it just made me grateful that I could still hold tight to my 19-year-old brother, that my parents got to see me grow beyond the sketches of a person I was at 17. To live in America now is to know such a horror could occur anywhere, that it will happen again, that the odds it will be you or your child, sibling or friend are low but not impossible. We know what it looks like. Mass makes as good a case as a film can for de-compartmentalizing that, without exploitation, just for a bit – that the work of feeling for another’s loss, of looking where we don’t want to and holding the stare, is worth the effort.

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