Looking at art as a way for us to process the traumas of our day (or past, as the case may be), it makes sense that school shootings would be a subject of no small number of films. School shootings seem an almost perennial condition for us in America. Popularly, we like to link school shootings to Columbine, but the truth is that the problem goes back even farther. Pearl High School in October of 1997. Heath High School in December of 1997. West Side Middle School in March of 1998. Thurston High School in May of 1998. And these are just some of the more memorable ones, the small list of which doesn’t crack the surface of pre-Columbine school shootings.
The decades long epidemic of mass murder at our schools has no doubt unleashed a wave of collective trauma upon us from which we have no real idea how to heal. It’s an onslaught of violence that leads to fear across generations. I was 16 when Columbine happened. My kids today regale me with stories of their active shooter drills at their schools, a practice that gained widespread traction several years after my graduation in 2001.
Either way, this has been a topic of concern for at least two generations of students and their parents, so it’s never surprising when the subject creeps into popular entertainment. Countless books, short stories, Very Special Episodes, and movies have been made exploring the topic over the last couple of decades, most of which feel lacking, at best, or exploitative, at worst. It’s a hard subject to grapple with, to be sure, and it’s rarely been handled particularly well until now.
Fran Kranz, an actor perhaps best known for his role as Marty—aka, the stoner—in the 2010 horror sendup Cabin in the Woods, makes his screenwriting and directorial debut with Mass, the first truly brilliant film dealing with school shootings. Unlike most films, which make the mistake of concerning themselves with the inherent human drama and tragedy of the shooting itself, Kranz focuses his attention on the aftermath.
In this case, it’s six years following a (completely fictional) horrific school shooting. Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) are still reeling from the loss of their son, Evan, who died when Hayden, the son of Richard of Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) attacked his high school. In an effort to make peace with the tragedy and try to move forward, the two sets of parents agree to meet in the hopes that some kind of sense can be found amidst the senselessness and tragedy.
Kranz’s script is one of the most engaging, thought provoking, and powerful pieces of cinematic writing to come along in years. While not overly complex—the vast majority of the film takes place in a church basement with just the four characters—its construction is beautiful. Information is doled out slowly, and the secrets it contains are revealed bit by bit in a captivating, enthralling manner. The full depths of the tragedy that occurred that day are told to us bit by careful bit, always keeping us wondering just how bad things were and the full scope of the madness and carnage both parents have to live with.
What’s more is that it feels all too real. Mass has a largely verité feel to it; at times, we feel almost invasive of an intimate, private meeting between two sets of parents who are, at the end of the day, each grieving the horror of that day. The authenticity with which Kranz wrote his script sings off the screen, forcing us to confront the ripple effects that so many parents have been dealing with for so long.
Each of the film’s four main actors delivers absolutely stunning performances that are as haunting as they are beautiful. Isaacs and Plimpton capture grief so well that it’s often uncomfortable to watch. They each move between sadness and anger and confusion so deftly that it’s easy to forget that you’re just watching great performers giving masterclasses in their craft. So, too, with Birney and Dowd, who have not only grief but remorse to carry with them.
The four performers each give an award worthy performance that will, no doubt, get recognized during the upcoming awards season. Each captures the pain of grief and rage and sorrow so perfectly that they almost transcend acting, seemingly creating real live people sprung fully formed into this world. Heavy as it sounds—and it truly is heavy—Mass is also surprisingly uplifting. From the depths of tragedy these characters and these actors manage to find moments of raw humanity that remind us how connected we all are and remind us of the power of approaching our lives with open minds and open hearts.
It will be more than difficult for a better film to be released this year. The authenticity, the emotionalism, the weight of everything Mass not only tries to do but succeeds in doing catapults this to the top of 2021’s cinematic offerings, giving us a film that will resonate for years, if not decades. It’s also a powerful reminder that the drama doesn’t stop when the news cameras leave town. The pain doesn’t end because the audience moved on. For hundreds of parents across this country, the drama and the pain are lifelong afflictions that will forever alter who they are and how they live. Mass reminds us of this, leaving us all left to wonder “what now?”
Mass is now playing in theaters everywhere.