The fact Mass been relegated to the status of a “Sky Original” in the UK might mislead you (not all their “original” acquisitions are bad, but the first few were dregs that distributors clearly didn’t want to send to cinemas and neither Netflix nor Amazon had any interest in, and they’ve not done much to turn that reputation around). This, however, is a blisteringly emotional gut-punch that definitely merits your time.
The more one says of the plot, the more it spoils the film’s revelations — it’s a compelling watch however much you know, but the less the better, to allow some of the shocking moments to land at their most impactful. Suffice to say, it’s about two couples (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton on one side, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney on the other) sitting down to talk. Yes, it’s mostly a four-hander, taking place in one room in real time, in which people talk to one another. That setup has led to accusations of staginess, because some people think that “a few characters sat in one room talking” automatically equals “like a play”. It’s more complicated than that, and Mass is a good example as to why. On screen, we have access to greater intimacy and subtly — the cast don’t need to project so the back row of the gods can hear; there are closeups to really see what the characters are feeling when they’re not speaking; and so on. In a literal sense, you could stage this script, but it wouldn’t have the same effect.
It’s written and directed by actor Fran Kranz in his directorial debut, and it’s a real achievement. For a film that is literally about sitting down and expressing emotions, it’s remarkably subtle, especially coming from a first-timer. He also doesn’t seek to explain every little detail. So much of what has gone on prior to this meeting is only hinted at, which is partly realistic (no character explains things they all know just for our sake), but it also keeps the film focused on the true human emotions. And in that respect, it would’ve been so easy to give in to histrionics, especially when the subject matter is so explosive, but Kranz and his cast keep it reined in. All four of the leads are phenomenal, each in different ways, and it’s a shame that the film didn’t have the support of a bigger, savvier distributor to give it an awards season push — they should all four be in the conversation for every gong going, but there’s not an Oscar nomination between them, and only Dowd was recognised by BAFTA. A pity.
Kranz’s one real flourish is a pronounced change in aspect ratio about halfway through. It comes at a key moment in the narrative, so clearly it’s meant to be significant, but I can’t quite work out how. Regular readers will know I normally love a film that plays with aspect ratios, but here it just seems like a distraction. It’s a minor misstep in a film full of bold moves that pay off. For example, it’s brave to risk undercutting the drama with the almost-comedic ordinariness of bookend scenes in which, at the start, the meeting room is prepared and, at the end, everyone leaves. It would’ve been easy to fade to black after the last big emotional moment in the room, but the return to everyday mundanity is, I think, part of the point.
Mass has flown under the radar somewhat, especially without the bonus of a clear presence in awards season. That’s a shame, because it’s a fine work that merits exposure. It’s not an easy watch — it’s liable to wring out your emotions — but, with that, it’s ultimately cathartic. A potent experience.
Mass is the 9th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.