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Sundance 2021 Review: Mass – “An astutely crafted chamber piece”

Ann Dowd and Reed Birney appear in Mass by Fran Kranz, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy.

Lewis B. Smedes is quoted as saying, “Forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember.  We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.”  I can’t help but think how perfectly this quote complements first time writer and director Fran Kranz‘s feature Mass.  In a raw, emotional powerhouse of a film, Kranz and his talented actors manage to portray, in real-time, the human experience of healing, connection and forgiveness.

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Mass is probably best viewed with as little knowledge of its content as possible.  This also makes it exceptionally difficult to write about, but discovering the slowly laid out clues Kranz has plotted only helps to turn up the emotional tension in the room.  In fact, the screenwriter doesn’t really reveal his entire hand until after the 40-minute mark, and it’s a very effective tool.  For everything that brings these four characters together happens years before their gathering, and witnessing the details of this encounter unfold means you’re all experiencing the conversation simultaneously.

Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) have travelled some way for a meeting.  It occurs in a church basement, where everyone seems a bit nervous for what’s about to take place.  The pair await the arrival of Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), where they then sit down around a table, alone in a room and begin to talk.  Their families are emotionally and inextricably linked through grief, and in an attempt to move forward a dialogue must be had.  The four finally reveal and explore everything about the fateful event that changed their lives forever, trying to understand and to heal.

The way that Fran Kranz begins this film, with an anxiety-ridden church employee trying to prepare the meeting room, brilliantly initiates the uphill climb of this emotional rollercoaster ride.  Her overt concern over making everything perfect sets a tone for the arrival of our main characters.  Once they do enter the scene, Mass plays like a stage production (and would in fact be a brilliant play), happening almost exclusively in one room.  The dialogue is thoughtful, exchanges well constructed, and Kranz lets his actors amply explore the depths of their characters.

While Kranz’s effective script tells a complete and traumatic story, his cast are what truly elevates Mass to the next level.  Each of the characters has an agenda walking into that room, save for maybe Richard who just wants out, but their needs and wants for this gathering change during the course of their conversation.  Every one of them goes through an emotional evolution.  None of these people are the same walking into that room as they are walking out, and each of these actors goes through that journey with their characters.  With exceptional performances all round, it is telling then that Martha Plimpton stands out from this talented crowd.  Her character of Gail seems to go through the most, has the widest arc, and as her restrained anger softens into vulnerability, Plimpton excels in a way that could see herself in awards season contention.

A hymn plays over the final frames of this film called ‘Blest be the Tie that Binds’ an apt choice for the conclusion, but also for Kranz’s overall theme of the human connection.  Mass is an astutely crafted chamber piece, the type of film that is bound to start conversation, not only discussion about the tragedies that inspired it, but also about the power of forgiveness, hope, and empathy.  It can be a painful and visceral watch but one that is sadly necessary and essential.

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