Mass answers the question "Can a film be simultaneously exceptionally well-acted and shockingly stilted?" in the affirmative. While having four excellent performances Mass as a whole does feel more like a filmed stage play, an irony given it is an original screenplay.
Taking place at an Episcopalian church meeting room we, after a brief setup, meet our primary pair of couples. There is Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs), the younger of the two couples. Shortly after, Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) show up. Despite their fumbling around the subject, it takes over half an hour to find out what the meeting is all about.
Richard and Linda's son Hayden killed Gail and Jay's son Evan in a Sandy Hook-type mass shooting before Hayden killed himself.
As these two couples search out for answers and understanding, Gail and Jay appear to forget that they are there to "express but not interrogate". Calmly, sometimes despairingly, the four go through an emotional rollercoaster where they ultimately can forgive if not forget the terrible circumstance that unites them.
Mass is expertly acted by all four performers. It is a credit to writer/director Fran Kranz that he drew exceptional performances from the main cast (there are three other characters who come in at the beginning and end). The film is so well-acted that it is difficult to find a "standout". If forced to rank them however, I would put them in order thus: Dowd, Plimpton, Isaacs, Birney.
That isn't to say that Birney was the weakest, merely that his role as Hayden's father seems the smallest. Unlike the others, he also does not appear to have an Oscar-ready clip to select. Mass is dominated by the women: Plimpton as the more openly grieving mother, Dowd as the more restrained yet equally grieving, even frightened mother. The women, both who have lost children in an inexplicable tragedy, are more open emotionally.
Isaacs' Jay has a moment where he releases his rage, a frightening and powerful moment. "Where's your regret? That's what we want to see", he begins when Richard and Linda continue attempting to explain their viewpoint. Jay is in turns vindictive, lecturing, hostile and torn, and it is a credit to his skills that Jay does not come across as a monster at times for his almost vengeful manner.
"What should we say?", Linda replies, and Dowd loads so much into that. Her statement is defensive, confused and genuine, a woman caught in her own private grief who now faces the wrath of a man who perhaps places too much on her and her estranged husband.
In terms of acting, Mass is excellent. In terms of story, it suffers from its penchant for staging. It comes across as a filmed play more than a feature film. To a point I can understand that we are limited to these four people. However, the minor characters at the Episcopalian church seem to be almost forced comic relief than real people.
As a side note, I personally think of Episcopalians as churchgoing atheists, but that is neither here nor there.
Perhaps Kranz felt the need to try and "balance" the gun debate by trying to make Richard the "mental health, not guns, is the issue" voice, but I don't think it worked. Perhaps focusing more on the shared grief these two sets of parents feel than on the dangers of weapons would have done Mass better.
Also, because Mass looks like a filmed play (or at least something that can easily translate to the stage) when we are reminded that it is a film, Mass falters. The cutaway to a field with a ribbon after Jay's dramatic monologue seems too artsy. The fade to black after Gail's spent emotionally feels like we've moved on to Act II.
Worse, after what appears to be the catharsis the parents need comes, we get about another fifteen to twenty minutes that feel attached. Granted, this gives Dowd a chance for another powerful monologue, but I still think Mass might have done better with the act of forgiveness.
Mass is again exceptionally well-acted, but it can be at times also overwrought and stilted. This is an interesting story that with some work could have reached the heights it aimed for. It might also still be reworked as a stage play, where it can get new life.