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Two sets of parents, one school shooting: ‘Mass’ shows the hardest part

Raw pain lingers in movie about gun violence

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton star as grieving parents in “Mass,” written and
directed by Fran Kranz.
Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton star as grieving parents in “Mass,” written and directed by Fran Kranz. (Courtesy Bleecker Street)

Fran Kranz’s new movie “Mass” posits that the most radical thing people with intractable differences can do is sit together and talk and listen to each other, for understanding, for empathy and to forge a path forward. 

Talk about a story for our time.

The actor drew on two disparate sources for his directorial debut: South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he’d studied in college, and a spree of mass shootings in America. In particular, the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., hit Kranz hard. 

“Parkland happened, and I was a new parent. It was the first significant or mass shooting of that scale that happened when I had a child. She was a little over one. So it affected me differently,” Kranz said. Initially, he just wanted to understand that feeling and didn’t see it as a creative venture. “I went on Amazon and ordered a book on Columbine, ordered a book about Aurora, ordered a book on Sandy Hook,” he said, reeling off the shorthand names for some of America’s grimmest tragedies. “I thought, I need to know more about this.”

There lay the beginnings of a story centered around the meeting of two sets of parents: one whose child was killed in a shooting, one whose child did the killing. 

What provided the connecting tissue were the parallels between the wide reach of South Africa’s commission and the less formal meetings arranged through the nonprofit Forgiveness Project.

“I thought they were the most extraordinary thing. How did people do this?” Kranz said, referring to how he felt when learning about South Africa and how the commission assembled so many people to revisit the darkest episodes of apartheid, putting together victims and assailants, providing a forum for confession, confrontation and amnesty.

“I watched these families forgive the people that tortured them. These incredibly awful circumstances and stories, and then some of these people would forgive them. And I remember thinking, I could not do that,” Kranz said. “It was a scary feeling to know that if anything like that ever happened to me, I would just be a hateful, heartbroken person in pain for the rest of my life. … That stuck with me. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of.”  

The eventual script he produced attracted actors known for their intensity: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney. 

One of the most affecting things about the story is its time frame: years after the shooting. Many people have moved on, but how can grieving parents?

“These little meetings, these private meetings, and we’ll never know what really happened inside of them, they’re like those amnesty hearings. It’s this way of trying to find some kind of truth, and if you can see shared humanity and some kind of shared suffering within the opposing party, you might be able to forgive,” Kranz said.

Isaacs and Plimpton play Jay and Gail, whose son was killed by the son of Richard and Linda, portrayed by actors Birney and Dowd. Jay and Gail have thrown themselves into anti-gun violence activism. But their desire not to see their son’s death be in vain has still left them with their grief, and questions. 

Richard and Linda have been shattered as well, enduring financial ruin, divorce and having to navigate an emotional and legal minefield as they grieve not just for the victims, but their own son, who died by suicide after killing 10 others. They are the only ones grieving 11 victims, Richard says in the film.

Although the aftermath of gun violence hangs over the story, Isaacs, perhaps best known for his role as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, said the biggest issue is one of blame. Who do people blame when they are in pain? How do they deal with that?

“But the reason this film, I think, is a powerful human story is it’s about division. It’s about blame. We’re talking in Washington, which is the world epicenter of blame. … You see the rise of demagogues around the world. They tap into this subterranean current of instinct to blame, which runs underneath all human instinct,” Isaacs said. 

And for those worried it all sounds a bit stagey, no worries there. Yes, this is a low-budget picture set in a small town church. But Kranz channeled films like Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” and Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story.” Those are not bad “comps,” as the trade term goes. That approach lends “Mass” a cinematic grace to complement its screenplay’s raw emotion — no small feat for a first-time director working with a small budget.

Dowd, a veteran performer known for her roles in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Leftovers,” said it all came together in the end. 

“When everything falls into place, and you just feel in your gut, we will be OK. That happened very, very quickly in the room,” she said. 

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