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Film review: ‘Mass’ a haunting, powerful slow burn

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“Why do I want to know about your son? Because he killed mine.”

So begins the dramatic arc of “Mass,” one of the most intense films in recent memory. The film, which had its Heartland Film Festival debut Oct. 8, is set largely in the basement of a church in an unspecified, all-American town, focusing on two sets of parents. One pair, portrayed by Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton, lost their son six years earlier in a mass shooting at his high school. The other pair, played by Ann Dowd and Reed Birney, lost their son the same day, when he killed himself after killing 10 others.

“Mass” audiences will find there isn’t a moment of peace in the nearly two-hour film. From awkward church employees trying — and failing — to cut the tension to debates between the parents about gun control, the film itself is one ongoing difficult conversation. Staged much like a play, director Fran Kranz forces audiences to feel the claustrophobia the parents likely feel, stuck at the small folding table in a closed room in the church. 

Maybe this discomfort is what audiences, particularly American audiences, need. Americans don’t like difficult conversations, perhaps that’s why the year 2020 had more mass shootings than it had days. 

“Mass” proves that, while those conversations may yield few answers, they can provide a space for healing. The lack of description (we don’t know what state or region the shooting took place) mirrors the American experience. Families across the country have been torn apart by gun violence; in their schools, churches and movie theaters. From small towns like Newtown, Connecticut, to right here at home in Indianapolis, too many communities have struggled in the aftermath of a mass shooting. From demonstrating the searing grief of losing a child to the difficulties of finding answers after a senseless tragedy, “Mass” forces us to confront the horrors of gun violence while simultaneously offering a glimpse of hope that forgiveness is possible. 

The four leads in this movie are — and I don’t use this word lightly — superb. Dowd’s portrayal is the most moving, as a mother forced to justify her love for her son while coming to terms with the evil he committed before his death. Both Isaacs and Plimpton play the part of grieving parents; the pain, the anger and the resentment toward the parents of the shooter, with a tenacity that makes audiences feel their pain through their performances. 

When nominees for the 2022 Academy Award are announced, I would be shocked if “Mass” doesn’t rack up several. With its phenomenal casting and gripping, albeit devastating, storyline, “Mass” is a slow burn that will linger with you for days. 

“Mass” will have a second screening at Heartland Film Festival at 5 p.m. Oct. 13 at Kan-Kan Cinema. For tickets, click here.

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848 or by email at breannac@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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