Mass (2021)

Fran Kranz | 107 mins | digital (HD) | 2.00:1 + 2.66:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Mass

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.

Powerful performances

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.

BAFTA nominee Ann Dowd

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.

5 out of 5

Mass is the 9th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

Fury (2014)

2015 #89
David Ayer | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UK & China / English & German | 15 / R

FuryI don’t believe there are very many movies about tanks — there’s Kelly’s Heroes (which, I must admit, I only know of thanks to ghostof82’s review of the film currently under discussion), and I’ve heard Lebanon’s very good, but no others spring readily to mind. I suppose there are sound production reasons for this, to do with getting bulky movie cameras into tiny spaces and the logistics of choreographing tank battles. The dearth of other films on the same topic automatically gives Fury, about an American tank crew in the closing months of World War 2, something of a leg up in the memorableness stakes.

Specifically, we follow the crew of a tank nicknamed ‘Fury’, commanded by ‘Wardaddy’ (Brad Pitt), driven by ‘Gordo’ (Michael Peña), the cannon manned by ‘Bible’ (Shia LaBeouf), and Grady (Jon Bernthal) is the mechanic or something (I’m not really au fait with what jobs there were in a tank, this is just what I managed to glean from the film itself). After the co-driver is killed, this team who have been together for years are forced to accept a new member, Norman (Logan Lerman), who was trained to type 60-words-per-minute and, apparently, not much else. What follows is a mix of exciting action, men-at-war character drama, war-is-hell imagery, and something of a battle for the soul of the innocent new kid.

In some respects, then, Fury is a bit “seen it all before”. The desaturated photography, muddy landscape and slightly-ramshackle military campaign are all very post-Saving Private Ryan, though writer-director David Ayer lends enough of his own directorial flair that it feels more visually distinctive than most Ryan rip-offs. The “battle for the soul” story dates back at least as far as Platoon, but the thing is, it’s fertile ground. Here you’re contrasting men who’ve been fighting this tough war for years, who are accustomed to its brutality, with someone fresh to the fight, whose ideals haven’t yet been replaced by the practicalities of conflict.

Battle for the soulMost of the characters exist in a moral grey area, something which some reviewers seem to struggle with. From the off, our ostensible heroes are not shown in a particularly pleasant light, committing or encouraging acts we would view as unconscionable. As the film goes on, it seems like we’re being invited to bond with them, to respect or admire them. I’m not sure that’s a wholly accurate reading of it, though. I think we’re being shown different sides to them — much as Norman is, in fact. At first you see the depths they have reached; then, as you get to know them, you see a little more of their true (or at least their pre-corrupted-by-war) characters. Does this redeem them or excuse their actions? Well, that’s your decision. I don’t think the film is predicated on you coming round to their way of thinking. Without meaning to spoil anything, it’s not as if the meta/karmic world of plot construction lets them off scot-free by the end. Of course, whether we need our focus characters to be clean-cut heroes or whether complex morally-grey/black characters are preferable is another debate.

One of the advantages is that you can never be sure what the characters are going to do. Arguably the film’s strongest sequence comes after the tank column Fury leads has captured a town. The men are given some time off before they advance, which naturally means drinking, destroying German property, and whoring. While Bible reads and Gordo and Grady persuade a woman back to the tank to ‘share’, Wardaddy spies a woman (Anamaria Marinca) hiding at an upstairs window and drags Norman up with him. Inside, they find the woman and her pretty younger cousin (Alicia von Rittberg). As Wardaddy settles in, you have no idea what he’s going to do. He’s being nice, but does he mean it? Where is this going? No spoilers, but the unfolding scenes are among the film’s strongest; and as Wardaddy, Norman and the two women sit down to a meal, the rest of Fury’s crew arrive, kicking off one of the most uncomfortable mealtime scenes outside of a Tarantino movie. Tarantino mealThis is a scene most reviews seem to single out, I’ve since realised, but that’s for good reason: even watching it cold, the powerful writing, direction and performances mark it out as a sequence that transcends the movie it’s in. Again, it’s the unpredictability of what these men might do; the grey area of the guys we’re meant to think are the heroes not always being heroic.

For the viscerally inclined, Fury has much to commend it also. The aforementioned scarcity of tank battles on screen means almost every action sequence feels fresh and unpredictable, and Ayer stages them with requisite excitement and tension, too. The highlight is probably a three-on-one tanks-vs-tank fight that shows the might of the German opposition. The climax, in which the five men hole up in their mine-scuttled tank to take on literally a whole battalion of SS troops, is possibly too over-the-top for a movie that’s otherwise pretty realist in its aims, though even this is reportedly inspired by a real incident. Ayer again makes a fair fist of it seeming plausible, at least.

Beyond that, this is a very brutal depiction of war, to an almost horror movie level at times. Instructed to clean the tank on his arrival, Norman finds half the previous driver’s face lying inside; a man burning alive chooses to shoot himself in the head; various other limbs and faces explode as the movie goes on. Do we need to see such graphic detail? The old fashioned “get hit and fall over” style of being shot has clearly had its day, but do we need more than, say, a spurt of blood? Some would argue not. Some would argue part of the point is this ugliness, this inhumanity — it happens, or happened, and so it should be there; we shouldn’t be glorifying it by sanitising it. Nonetheless, at times Fury is a particularly extreme example of depicting the realism of violence, and some won’t feel up to stomaching it.

No rank in a tankI think Fury is a rather rewarding movie for those that can, though. The fact it provokes debate is no bad thing — I think it’s a misinterpretation to read the film, as some online commenters clearly have, as “these guys do horrible things, but they’re the main characters and the not-Nazis, so I must be meant to like them, so the film is bad”. Well, I suppose it’s not news that some people struggle with cognitive dissonance. On the flipside, I don’t think you’re meant to outright hate them — there’s an element of “the Allies did bad things too, y’know” about the film, but that’s not its sole aim. I think it’s more complicated than that, and, naturally, all the better for it. Even on a more surface level, though, there’s adrenaline-pumping excitement to be had from the well-realised action scenes. It’s a combination that worked very well indeed for me, and if my score errs on the side of generosity then, well, consider it redressing the balance.

5 out of 5

Fury debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:45pm and 8pm.