In the Bible, before his crucifixion, Jesus Christ enters the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He knows the fate that awaits him: He’ll be betrayed by one of his disciples, tortured as a political prisoner and ultimately executed for disrupting the status quo of the religious establishment. Before culminating his ministry, Jesus prays that God will take this fate away. He prays so hard, the Bible says, that he sweats blood.
It’s one of the tensest moments in scripture, a moment of anguish and desire to avoid something unavoidable, a sacrifice on which an entire faith is built. In Mass, actor Fran Kranz’s gripping chamber-piece debut as director, he finds a similar through line with four characters who are barreling toward a moment of explosive confrontation and possible breakthrough. Tough decisions will be made, anger will be plentiful, and permanent resolution will be necessary. Though in the garden, things never come easily or immediately.
Kranz uses a small room in a church to stage his dialogue-heavy story, placing the grieving parents of a child killed in a school shooting in a structured conversation with the ashamed, reserved parents of the teenager who committed the atrocity before killing himself. Kranz sucks the air out of the room and forces these four characters to purge their complicated emotions surrounding the tragic event — regret, pangs of sorrow, intense anger. The parties are forced to face the reality of their suffering in a way that could culminate in something profound — possibly with forgiveness and a path forward, albeit an imperfect one, for all involved.
Mass is a lot. Knowing that going in will help you brace for an undoubtedly tough sit — the kind of movie you will be bowled over by but won’t want to watch again anytime soon. It’s not the kind of movie that holds its feelings in; it’s brazenly expressive. For a film with an anvil of tension hanging over it, that brazenness is necessary. At times, Kranz gets a little carried away reinforcing his themes with imagery, but he never slips up when it comes to the film’s central conversation.
Each of the film’s four leads is excellent in their own way. Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs get the lion’s share of the emotional purging as the parents of the deceased child. Isaacs vacillates between anger and focus, while Plimpton is meditative and thoughtful — both actors weave a picture of two people forever changed by the unthinkable, trying to find a way out of the darkness.
As the parents of the shooter, veteran character actors Ann Dowd and Reed Birney end up with the script’s harder material. It’s tougher to sympathize with these characters, themselves grieving parents trying to piece together where they went wrong and what was out of their control. An engrossing Birney keeps his guard up and delivers a frank performance that keeps the material on its feet, but Dowd is the most stunning of all. As she has been throughout her career, she is the master of making you feel uneasy — she tries to balance her desire to help the parents of the victim find peace with the love she still has for her son, despite the terrible things he did.
Mass is about what happens in the Garden of Gethsemane we sometimes find ourselves in, when we’re forced to confront the darkness in ourselves and in others and try to find catharsis. Kranz’s script is unflinching and devastating. His best directorial decisions seem to be knowing when to get out of the way and let the actors envelop you with their performances. This is a movie you’ll never forget.