2021 Sundance Review: Mass

Director(s): Fran Kanz

Writer(s): Fran Kranz

Cast: Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney

Synopsis: Years after a tragic shooting, the parents of both the victim and the perpetrator meet face-to-face.

Grief is a subject that is tackled time and time again when it comes to film. The grief of losing a friend, a loved one, a companion, a victim all of these things have been done and done again. But what if the person you lost isn’t just someone you love dearly, but was someone that caused pain on countless others?

Mass is an exploration into the pain and heartbreak that two families feel after such a tragedy. This film was captured with a sincere level of nuance and grace that you start to forget this is a film overall, as these difficult moments begin to feel real. Fran Kranz, better known for his acting work in films like The Cabin in the Woods, crafts a directing/writing debut for the ages. In his first run at it, Kranz not only captured this heavy moment with the grace and volatility it needs, but he is also able to capture everything while showing us nothing. You’re taught in screenplay classes, at least I was, that action is the most important thing. You are taught that you should be able to tell your story through details rather than dialogue, and that dialogue should only be used when necessary.

Kranz – who absolutely should be considered for Oscars next year – does the exact opposite of this here, as he keeps the audience in a single room for almost two hours with these four parents and forces us to listen to this conversation. The way the scenes are written includes enough detail that you don’t need to see what happened to know what happened, and the way it was shot got you so into the film that you couldn’t look away. I mean, I couldn’t even blink, because any time I closed my eyes I could perfectly recapture what was being said by these four amazing actors. You never even get to see the two boys, but you can invasion every frightening moment of the incident. The weight of what he brought to this film was entirely meaningful, and the words really struck through. These weren’t just difficult words of loss, there was also a clever deconstruction of the gun and mental health issues that seemed tacked on but worked as well.

However, with how Kranz decided to structure this film, these four performances mean everything to the success of the film. This movie doesn’t work if even one of these four actors is off their game in the tiniest measure. Thankfully, they weren’t. To sit here and write about how great the acting is would be an understatement for the film. These performances were magnificent. Period. As we weave in and out of each person’s testimony, you can feel the tension in the room building up like a volcano ready to burst. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and his wife Gail (Martha Plimpton) have so much animosity towards Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), and justifiably so. And that volcano rises and rises through some incredible use of shaky cam to heighten the tension until Jason Isaacs just goes off on a powerful and demanding monologue about his son. Kranz’s ability to capture these moments were what helped make the film as good as it was. He didn’t set up like a newscast and capture the conversation, he got us into the middle of it in a tense way. When Isaacs finally blows, you can feel his pain and his hurt coarse through your veins. It is moments like these you have to remind yourself that what you are watching is a work of fiction because the way that Isaacs delivers this scene you start to believe this is real. That is what is so great about this film is that everything feels so real and we are made to feel like a fly on the wall in this difficult conversation.

All of the performances are fantastic, and they all are award-worthy. Ann Dowd is mesmerizing as the mom of the attacker. She displays a level of guilt and is torn between levels of hatred towards her son and continuing to love him. She is quiet, but powerful, and delivers a knockout final monologue that will leave you with even more heartbreak than you thought you could find. However, it really is Isaacs’ performance that blew me away in this one. It is one of not just feeling pain, but wanting it from the people who, he believed, help cause it. His moments are electric, and his words ring through so heavy you feel as though you are in pain with him. One final monologue where he recounts a story of his son will be one of the best scenes of the year, and when he gets an Oscar nomination that will be his clip in what is easily his best performance.

What Jay and Gail have gone through is something that many parents don’t want to ever think about. No one can understand their pain, that is except for Linda and Richard. This film is a lot about understanding and trying to understand the other side of the story. Jay and Gail have experienced so much pain in the loss of their child, but just because Richard and Linda’s child was the murderer, that doesn’t mean they are exempt from feelings of loss or hurt. It actually, in a way, magnifies it, because they are the ones that have to live with the embarrassment of being a parent to a child who would do something like this. It is a difficult line to cross, but I think Kranz does so beautifully in how he expresses each person’s pain and guilt.

No words can fully express how hard this movie is to watch, and no words can fully express the pain that is felt by the families of these awful tragedies. Fran Kranz does the best job I think you can, and completely blew me away. I had prepared myself for something difficult, but this was so much more than I ever realized. It is early in the year, but this will go down as one of the best films of 2021.

Final: Mass is one of the most emotionally heavy films I have ever seen, but also one of the most superbly made as well. Fran Kranz’s incredible craftsmanship shines in a work of pure art, and Jason Isaacs and Ann Dowd lead the way in what will be four of the best performances of the year. Mass turns the audience into a fly on the wall in this lengthy and difficult real-time exploration of pain, loss, anger, and forgiveness. The screenplay masterfully doesn’t show us anything, but in turn, shows us everything in how meticulously written it is. I can’t find a single flaw with this movie and think this will be one of the most impactful films of the year. The first true 2022 Oscar candidate. This is how you make a movie. I’m speechless.

My Score: A+

2021 Sundance Coverage

2021 Film Rankings

Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy

12 thoughts on “2021 Sundance Review: Mass

Add yours

  1. I never thought I would be able to sit through 1 hour and 45 min of this tragic story but the time flew by so fast.
    Really hoping this small film will get the big awards attention! They all deserve it.


  2. I agree completely with this review. “Mass” is an amazing film, and I felt emotionally drained when it was over. The performances are absolutely incredible and Fran Kranz’s screenplay and direction were flawless. I hope this film wins awards and as many people as possible have the opportunity to see it. Not only did it explore grief in a way I’ve never seen a film do, it even more importantly illustrates how forgiveness is such an essential part of working through it.


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