Mass review: the power of four actors in one room

Mass movie
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Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, Ann Dowd and hello to Jason Isaacs star in Mass: and it’s a piece of work that’s not going to exit your head anytime soon.

From the smallest of ingredients, something extraordinary can happen. At its absolute barest, Fran Kranz’s directorial debut is built from not very much at all. To this point best known as an actor in the likes of The Cabin In The Woods and the TV show Dollhouse, for Mass – that he also wrote – Kranz, after a small but necessary amount of set-up, puts four excellent actors in one room.

The camera barely leaves that room again. It doesn’t need to.


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It’s a set up that seems more suited to the stage than the screen on paper, but then as anyone who’s sat through Sidney Lumet’s peerless 12 Angry Men can testify, chamber piece claustrophobia can prove to be cinema gold.

Mass, then, is excellent.

The setup is that two sets of parents are coming together to meet in a church hall. We learn that the meeting has been organised on their behalf, and that both sets are reticent about the meeting. So is Kenda, played by Michelle N Carter, who’s set it up. Whilst Breeda Wool’s Judy has spent time getting in snacks and trying to put the table in the right place, Kenda strips things down and then gets out of the way.

Which is when the foursome arrive. On one side of the table are Gail and Jay, played by Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs. On the other are Linda and Richard, played by Ann Dowd and Reed Birney. What unites them all – appreciating that some of the promotion has given away more than I’m inclined to do – is a terrible event that they’re on very different sides of. An event that the conversation dances around for a little while, before eventually the assorted feelings and perspectives around the table are voiced. All as the snacks remain pretty much untouched.

I can’t get across just how magnetic it is to see things gradually, gradually, gradually unwind and unravel. Kranz’s confidence in his pacing is extraordinary, and it’s to the point too where everything seems to matter. I find myself watching the screen as if it was a Magic Eye picture, looking for small movements, little ticks, clues as to where the emotions were going. Kranz leans hard into silence too, reducing score to its bare minimum and only letting his camera loosen as the temperatures in the room rise.

For the actors, the roles must have looked on paper – notwithstanding what underpins the film – a rare gift. Four rounded characters, each distinct, each with space given to explore their side of the story. Better people than me have already pointed out that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a feature this year that boasts a quartet of performances as strong as this, and I’m doing little to offer dissent there.

Of course, from the moment we say hello to Jason Isaacs, his eyes haunted and his words fractured, it’s clear we’re getting top tier work. The on-screen relationship he builds with Martha Plimpton – a terrific actor, who’s never been better for my money – simply elevates things further. She’s concentrated, nervous, intense, polite, and utterly human, a broken woman trying to piece whatever she can together.

I was less familiar with Reed Burney, at least on the big screen, and his Richard is far more the trying to hold things together one of the four. Which makes him a perfect foil for Ann Dowd, playing an insanely complex character with the most aching look I’ve seen on an actor’s face in some time. To highlight any one of those would be a misjustice: any awards body that gives prizes for ensembles or casting should just cancel the nominations this year.

The intensity of the film is a huge asset too, and I did feel a teeny bit that on the very, very few occasions Kranz cuts away, he lets just a squeak of air out. But otherwise, as a director he doesn’t flinch, and as a writer, he carefully, quietly moves the balance of the conversation with exquisite skill. It’s not so much the power shifts around the table, but there’s something that ebbs and flows between the four. Chances are you’ll barely notice it, but on reflection, it’s quite something what Kranz has achieved.

Everything matters here. As does this: Mass is one of the films of the year already.

Mass is on Sky Cinema and in cinemas from this weekend.

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