Fran Kranz’s stunning ‘Mass’ features career best work from Jason Isaacs

Bleecker+Street

Bleecker Street

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Compassion, guilt, and rage all live in the same neighborhood, often sharing the same street from time to time. These three things can define and undo us, the Achilles heel for every human who decides to feel. Every once in a while, they come together for something extraordinary: Hope.

***Mild spoilers will follow***

There are a lot of one-word reviews I could use with Fran Kranz’s (an accomplished actor and firs- time director) new film, “Mass.” Breathtaking would be near the top of the list, because it will suck the oxygen right out of you but in a good way. If bleakness met emotion and had a kid named hope, it would be this movie, which hits theaters Friday. There are only a handful of actors but with this particular film, it’s the premise that should hook you over a single well-known name. More importantly, a much-needed conversation.

Two sets of parents. Both grieving, but in separate and sadly unique ways. Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) are the parents of Haden, a high school student who became a shooter one fateful day at school. One of his victims was Evan, the son of Jay (Jason Isaacs, the son of Jewish parents) and Gail (Martha Plimpton). Years later, they decide to meet in a church. Just them, a table, and four chairs. A box of tissues and some water will cost a walk to the other side of the room, but it’s the conversation they will have that affects them forever.

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Kranz rightfully submerges us in this cinematic powder keg for about 110 minutes, which is just the perfect amount of time to spend with these four people. A few more minutes, and I may have requested a timeout to grab fresh air. There may be no crying in baseball, but it’s certainly allowed in the movies.

Any living soul with blood in their body — even the biggest cynic in town — will have a breakdown at some point watching this movie. Sometimes, the best-written films can feel like a turtleneck. At its best, you’re so comfy and taken care of. At its worst, you can’t breathe and everything’s getting red.

“Mass” doesn’t feel very cinematic for the fact that there is no movie score playing in the background, and the setup looks more like a stage play than a film set. It does feel cinematic in the way that it gets to arrange a meeting that may not happen in real life. No, the four don’t eventually exchange punches before collapsing in a lake of tears. Kranz, who wrote the film as well as directed it, is too smart for that. She wants not only the words to simmer when they are said, but the reactions and eye movements to be registered.

Isaacs’s Jay starts off the movie as the calm and cool customer, as patient as ever. The good thing about Isaacs is that his eyes can do more talking than his mouth could ever account for. They’re blue lasers. All that cool soon melts away to boiling rage bordering on vindication. Plimpton’s Gail starts in one emotional pressure cooker state and finishes in another completely different state of mind. Birney, easily the least known actor of the quartet, gets some of the best lines while playing the “keep the peace” role at the table, a parent sprinting while sitting.

Dowd’s Linda is the nurture queen, a broken woman using hope as duct tape. She brings the other couple a flower concoction, a pot that should get a supporting object nomination for its impact on the beginning and end of this tale; a peace offering that evolves with the script. Dowd (Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale”) makes you feel every ounce of guilt hanging on Linda’s head. She’s a factory of compassion working overtime for others.

Plimpton is so good, too. Seeing a veteran of the film world get a role like this is why writing about movies is fun. She rips into the candid yet caring Gail, a mother struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.

The four leads are masterful, all career best work. Please don’t make me pick a favorite, at least not now. The entire cast of nine is brilliant in precise ways, actors who were born to play the part. No one else would have a chance with this material, or at least that’s the belief Kranz plants in our brains from the first 10 minutes.

Will some of it feel overly dramatic? Slightly, but then the actors pull the kite back to the ground and let us see what has been flying around inside their heads. It’s game-changing work from an ensemble that should get fitted for tuxes now. You too, Mr. Birney.

Isaacs claims the most searing moment with a monologue that should be saved for his Oscar reel. There’s a late scene where Jay finally snaps out of the nice guy routine, but instead of attacking another person verbally, he just recounts the most painful words and facts of his life. It will beat any parent to the ground, or anyone with a pulse and warm blood running through their veins.

If you see any movie this weekend, it should be “Mass.” No, it won’t be easy. Then again, great movies don’t always make for a comfortable experience. Sometimes they can teach us things. Raw, emotional, volatile, hopeful, bleak, intense. It checks all the boxes and adds a few more.

This is an expertly crafted movie about pain, guilt, and the role that compassion plays in that particular hand of cards. Cerebral in a way that kicks open the door to the inside of your head and sits down for a while.

Bravo Fran Kranz. This is one of those movies where a good walk is required once you finish it. I haven’t written that since “Fruitvale Station” hit theaters. That was in 2013.