Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival has always been the premiere way for independent filmmakers to debut their work and kick off a full year of promotion to find an audience.
This year’s festival has gone digital due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19 preventing cinephiles from catching the best 2022 has to offer so far in person, but 2021 Sundance entries are making their way to general audiences.
Without question, the best film at last year’s festival comes from first-time writer/director Fran Kranz, who astonishingly crafts an intensely theatrical film plugged into current events and sure to tug at heart strings.
Mass has a simple through-line. Two couples meet in a church basement to discuss an unforgivable tragedy. One couple’s son murdered the other as part of a mass shooting at a local high school and as part of the intense healing process, both couples agree to meet to discuss their sons’ lives and grieve.
The four stars at the center of the film are expertly cast and all deliver remarkable performances worthy of making Mass the best ensemble film of the year and any of the four leads worthy of individual recognition.
Ann Dowd’s Linda shows remarkable perseverance and boundless empathy despite the emotional devastation of her son’s actions, perfectly balancing Reed Birney’s matter of fact melancholia as Richard, the father who felt incapable of helping his son.
Jason Isaacs covers Jay’s self-righteousness with a methodical, deliberate pursuit of understanding that borders on callous without completing crossing the line, while Martha Plimpton’s Gail expertly harbors anger mixed with profound sorrow without a real place to put either.
While the physical distance between the four actors feels wide in the intimately tight shots Kranz chooses, their emotional distance is even more pronounced, a testament to just how specific and nuanced each choice of gesture, emphasis of phrase, undercutting of dialogue is.
Birney and Dowd have an unspoken chasm between them as Richard and Linda still cannot fully comprehend the rationale of their son’s actions, which has driven a wedge in their marriage.
Jay and Gail have a much more supportive relationship that Isaacs and Plimpton timidly show in smaller moments of Mass, but each showcase how their pain manifests on an individual level that neither can truly console the other about.
Kranz’s near-flawless screenplay takes the proper amount of care to establish what needs to be explained to the audience while not spoon-feeding them everything like many dialogue-driven films feel compelled to do.
Tension and apprehension build slowly over the course of the first thirty minutes as the two couples prepare to meet and spend awkward early moments together.
The film’s cinematography is not obtrusive, but not overly simplistic either as Kranz and cinematographer Ryan Jackson-Healy press in on the actors’ faces as events unfold to hyper-focus on reactions and intimidate revelations. This works especially well with the extensive and much needed cross-cut editing style of Yang-Hua Hu, who balances the emotions of whoever is speaking with genuine reactions of those hearing them.
Visually, Mass begins mostly with the actors shown in pairs, capturing Jay and Gail supporting each other or Richard and Linda sharing stories in two-person frames. By the climax, however, Franz cuts the room down even further, keeping each actor secluded in their own frame to maximize the isolation each character feels and heighten the dramatic tension with rapid-fire cross cutting in a way that makes Mass more like a cinematic experience than just an exceptionally well filmed stage play.
For a film that takes place almost exclusively in a small room with four people seated around one table, the visuals and editing give Mass a larger-than-life aesthetic that pushes the audience into the fray of these conversations as if viewers are observing from just a foot or two away.
Every moment cinematically is considered carefully in choosing the focus, often keeping audiences hearing the words of a vulnerable Linda while staring into the heartbroken eyes of Gail or pressed into the snarl of Jay’s disgust as Richard describes ignorance of perceived warning signs.
If the camera panned wider or the script was done as a stage play, audiences would be so hyper-sensitive to watch the speaker that they would perpetually lose the masterful non-verbal reactive work, which becomes almost more important than Kranz’s words or the actors’ line delivery. The emotion comes from seeing the pain in an unflinching, closeup way that only cinema could provide.
A sure-fire winner at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, Mass also has somewhat of a chance to factor into this year’s Oscar race with Dowd’s performance seeming like the best opportunity to be recognized as a supporting actress if eligibility allows.
Now available to a wider audience, Mass is an absolute must-see film for cinephiles looking for a substantial drama sure to make an impact in the relative doldrums of January.