By Alex McPherson 

Unrelenting and riveting, director Fran Kranz’s directorial debut, “Mass,” provides a complex meditation on grief and healing, as well as a mesmerizing showcase of acting talent.

The story largely takes place within a rural Episcopalian church, where the parents of two children gather to have a discussion concerning an incident that’s haunted them for six years. One of these children, named Evan, was slain in a school shooting by the other, named Hayden, who then killed himself. The parents attempt to gain greater insight and reach emotional catharsis after their lives were permanently changed. 

Following an opening where church employees Judy (Breeda Wool) and Anthony (Kagen Albright) anxiously prepare the sterile room for the meeting, all the while supervised by social worker Kendra (Michelle N. Carter) and a large crucifix on the wall, parents Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) arrive. Jay puts up a veneer of strength and stability, but there’s a simmering anger bubbling within that threatens to break loose at any moment. Gail is nearly monosyllabic and often requires Jay to speak for her, only growing more cagey when Hayden’s parents — uptight, sharply dressed Richard (Reed Birney) and deeply earnest Linda (Ann Dowd) — show up. As the conversation shifts from awkward pleasantries to burning anger, rage, sorrow, and compassion, we’re forced to sit with these people in their raw exchanges, authentic in their relatable contradictions. 

Indeed, “Mass” is a harrowing, bleak, and profoundly real story, unfolding at an almost real-time pace. Kranz’s first feature plays like a horror film. It leaves viewers with the ideas that grief can’t always be overcome, that fighting for clear-cut answers can itself victimize, that communicating anguish is a messy and unpredictable task, and that true empathy is all-but-required to make peace with a world that refuses to make sense.

Needless to say, “Mass” isn’t an easy watch, but it’s impossible to avert your eyes from the screen once it begins. We feel the parents’ claustrophobia and vulnerability in being molded from the horrific act of violence all these years later. There’s no tidy resolution to this meeting of four broken souls, presented with the best acting I’ve seen all year so far. Each of them approaches the situation with different attitudes and perspectives, which gradually erode and evolve as their conversation carries on. 

Isaacs brilliantly depicts Jay’s internal battle of impatience, lending the film considerable tension as tempers escalate. Plimpton shines as a mother who has experienced irreparable loss and who enters the conversation unsure of what exactly she wants to get out of it — retribution or forgiveness? Richard and Linda, the parents of the shooter, are just as layered. Richard’s initial defensiveness belies the guilt he harbors, blaming himself for Hayden’s decisions. Linda, gestures of goodwill notwithstanding, is also self-loathing — torn between her motherly love for Hayden and the act that forever harms his memory. Portrayed by Dowd with heartbreaking power, Linda at one point states that she continues to mourn her son even as her community doesn’t.

Kranz, who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing, excels in giving his subjects naturalistic dialogue that never once loses its authenticity. Hot button topics are brought up briefly, but the film doesn’t jam them into the narrative. Rather, by focusing on a small group of individuals confronting a deeply personal disaster, “Mass” handles its sensitive subject matter in a respectful manner without talking down to viewers. Additionally, religious aspects of the plot are used for subversive means. The difficulty of confronting the unspeakable and practicing forgiveness can’t be done through belief alone, after all, but through individual determination and perseverance.

Although “Mass” would likely work equally as well as a stage production, Kranz and editor Yang Hua Hu deploy cinematic stylings that, for the most part, amplify the proceedings. The editing gives Isaacs, Plimpton, Birney, and Dowd each their time in the spotlight, while the camera work progresses from static to handheld, and the aspect ratio condenses with new revelations. Kranz also brings the camera outside the church at brief intervals, emphasizing critical moments while not always feeling totally necessary.

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton 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.

In the end, “Mass” is tough to recommend to general audiences, but a film that’s difficult to fault in any particular area. It’s a near-perfectly constructed drama, one that refuses to sugarcoat life’s uncompromising reality, and that remains all the better for it. 

“Mass” is a 2021 drama written and directed by Fran Kranz. It stars Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney and Jason Isaacs. It is rated PG-13 for thematic content and brief strong language, and the runtime is 1 hour, 50 minutes. In theaters Oct. 22. Alex’s Grade: A

By Alex McPherson
The film unfolds during the late 1850s, somewhere along the East Coast of the US. In the midst of a harsh winter, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) lives on a farm with her emotionally distant husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck). They’re gradually drifting apart, trapped by circumstance and grieving the death of their young daughter. They depend on each other but avoid addressing the underlying problems in their relationship. Abigail, an intelligent, highly literate individual, finds some solace through writing in her diary, where she can freely express herself.

Abigail eventually falls for Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), an alluring woman moving in nearby. Tallie lives with her husband, Finney (Christopher Abbott), a cold-hearted farmer who insists that she remain his subordinate. As Abigail and Tallie’s friendship grows into something more, the two must persevere through extreme adversity within a world seemingly operating against them.

Although “The World to Come” provides few surprises, it does an admirable job at establishing Abigail and Tallie as three-dimensional individuals imprisoned by the norms that are forced upon them. The film’s patient, deliberate pacing also belies a searing anger at the ways they are treated by society at large.

“The World to Come” initially feels like a horror film, as viewers observe a bleak, snow-covered landscape matched by a fractured household. Narration from Abigail’s diary, which continues somewhat repetitively throughout the film, establishes her mourning for her previous life with her husband and child. This is combined with a clarinet-based score that ebbs and flows in keeping with her turbulent emotions and unpredictable environment.

Tallie, also enduring a troubled relationship, is more courageous in the face of others’ standards. Abigail and Tallie’s bond —  convincingly portrayed by Waterston and Kirby with meaningful glances and sharp enough dialogue —  offers them both an opportunity to chart a new path forward. Tallie provides Abigail a chance to symbolically fight back against what’s expected of her, putting her written thoughts into action. The moments they share, satisfying each other both sexually and intellectually, lend the proceedings a wistful tone, contrasted by moments of brutality in their surroundings. 

 Abigail and Tallie are enveloped in passion, even if their romance was doomed from the start. Like the place they inhabit — winter turning into spring, captured with painterly cinematography by André Chemetoff — their bond is fraught with danger, but also offers enticing possibilities for, if I may, their world to come.

The acting is exceptional across the board, with Waterston and Kirby giving standout performances. From the moment they lay eyes on each other, their chemistry is palpable. The dialogue they’re saddled with, on the other hand, is often lyrical but sometimes heavy-handed, eliciting eye rolls rather than swoons on several occasions.

Affleck gives a strong performance as Dyer, bringing him additional depth that earns him sympathy down the road. Abbott’s character, Finney, is portrayed in a bluntly toxic fashion —  his religiously charged dialogue hits viewers over the head and renders his character detestable, yet sadly recognizable.

The film’s conclusion leaves too much up in the air, however, and misses an opportunity to distinguish itself from other similar narratives. Like the future that Abigail envisions in her diary, though, the film ultimately encourages us to believe in one where justice is served, and where individuals have the freedom to chase their desires. Art has the power to convey deeply felt emotions and preserve them — Abigail’s diary becoming more than a simple journal, and the film itself open to interpretation. 

While I wish “The World to Come” had subverted genre expectations to a greater extent, the film remains worth watching for its performances, atmospheric cinematography, and overall poignant storyline.

“The World to Come” is a 2020 drama, directed by Mona Fastvold and starring Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck and Christopher Abbott. Rated R for some sexuality/nudity, the run time is 1 hour, 38 minutes. The movie premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and will be in theatres on Feb. 12. Alex’s Rating: B+