MASS movie poster | ©2021 Bleecker Street

MASS movie poster | ©2021 Bleecker Street

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Breeda Wool, Kagen Albright, Michelle N. Carter
Writer: Fran Kranz
Director: Fran Kranz
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Release Date: October 8, 2021

MASS takes place in and around an Episcopal church, but the drama is not in the least concerned with church business, nor is there any discussion of formal religion. (It is not to be confused with Netflix’s MIDNIGHT MASS.)

At the outset, we see a pair of church employees, Judy (Breeda Wool) and Anthony (Kagen Albright), preparing a meeting room under the supervision of Kendra (Michelle N. Carter). Judy is so anxious to do everything right, and Kendra is so specific in her concerns about what is and isn’t appropriate, that we’re full of tension even before we see the main characters.

These are two couples, Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs), and Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney), who have agreed to meet at this neutral site to discuss an event that happened six years ago.

We encounter Gail and Jay first as they drive up. Gail is on edge, not sure she can do this at all; Jay seems accommodating. Finally, they enter, and wait for Linda and Richard.

Given the set-up, it’s not hard to guess broadly what happened or why it’s been so hard for these people to come together. However, since MASS treats this as a revelation, it will be accorded spoiler status.

Once Linda and Richard arrive, and Kendra and Julie leave the couples alone in the room, MASS effectively becomes a four-hander chamber piece. Its principal excellent qualities are deep, compassionate insights from writer/director Fran Kranz, and four phenomenal performances.

Dowd in some ways has the most complex role, and she is rivetingly real in every aspect. Plimpton at first seems to be playing a variant on her uptight matriarch on HBO Max’s GENERATION, but as Gail opens up, she too becomes so vulnerable and raw that we believe everything she says and does.

Isaacs’s Jay comes across as a good man who is trying, with increasing difficulty, to remain in territory that is familiar to him. Isaacs conveys a potent combination of stubbornness, confusion and anguish.

Birney’s Richard is the one main character whose feelings never overwhelm his pragmatism. Birney gives a very nuanced performance as a man who, as much or more than coming to terms with his grief, is reckoning with the limitations of his own nature.

Wool, in a smaller role, is endearing as the eager-to-please functionary.

MASS could easily be done on stage, though Kranz’s screenplay is original. The reason it does and should exist as a film is that the closeups serve the actors and our understanding of their characters.

There are some peculiar editing choices here, with long shots of a field outside the church that don’t seem to serve much purpose (it’s not like the movie needs to cut away from the drama for time to pass). Otherwise, the production is handsome, and the spare music score exercises commendable restraint.

MASS is mainly a film of ideas and emotions. There is no onscreen blood, and the events it describes are not new. However, for those who are able to immerse themselves in it, it’s a harrowing experience.

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