Written and Directed by Fran Kranz

Starring Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Breeda Wood, Kagen Albright, Michelle N. Carter

The word mass has many different meanings in the English language. It can have a scientific purpose; it can reference a population or a church service. Mass can also reference other definitions, which the film “Mass” from first-time writer-director Fran Kranz explores.

“Mass” is a somber and moody character study, and my hat’s off to Kranz for having the courage to tell this type of story. The film is set in a rural community’s church and opens rather franticly, despite the brightly lit, white-walled appearance. Set against a feeling of serenity and safety, the church staff (Breeda Wood and Kagen Albright) are feverishly readying the church’s chapel for a meeting. The dialogue here is more mundane and, while focused on the setup, also paints a picture of the general operations of a church and the demands placed on the staff. The details regarding the meeting are ambiguously spoken of, and you can tell that whatever is about to take place won’t be pleasant.

Kranz elevates the pressure in the film by keeping his camera steady throughout the first act, focusing on the elements in the various rooms and on the people, allowing each character’s body language and spoken word to carry the film’s drama creating a dramatic intimacy. During the second act, Kranz and cinematographer Ryan Jackson-Healy change the framing to open up on the drama as the camera moves more.

In early shots, the camera is set back from the actors, demonstrating a gulf between their preparations and what the staff are preparing for. When Kendra (Michelle N. Carter) arrives, the camera is switched to a medium shot on the actress, denoting someone who knows the forthcoming events, however time and privacy are of the utmost importance.

Defining just how rural the community the film is set, the camera focuses on a conversation between Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) Perry in their car. They are both emotionally wrought, and neither is looking forward to the events that are about to unfold. Kranz establishes both the openness of the area surrounding the couple’s car and changes to a medium shot as a close-up of the couple to also show their intimate grief as a couple. They are discussing whether or not to attend the meeting; it is clear the couple is searching for something, but again, the film will not give away the details, saving them for the conversation.

Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) are the other half of the meeting, and Kranz continues not to move his camera, allowing the setting and the actors to carry the motion within each shot. Birney, in particular, is nearly a statue, holding in his emotions as best he can, given the circumstances. Dowd is full of emotion, both in body language and in the face. Both Isaacs and Plimpton are also emotional, but they are the steadier of the couples and slowly break down as events unfold.

“Mass” requires a lot out of its audience. The payoff, significant in the times we live in, is worth the time invested in the story. The technical craft, the acting, the writing, and directing are all first-rate for this first-time director. Kranz delivers a very subtle bang as each layer unfolds, which keeps on building with each passing moment. Plimpton offers one of my favorite performances of the year, while Dowd was just downright impressive. Equally as remarkable was Jason Issacs, who has the most movement within the various scenes, trying to control his rage while being receptive. Birney spent most of the story in a soft-spoken shock from not understanding why they were even meeting; his voice is the most controlled.

“Mass” is one of the most rewarding dramatic films in 2021. Fran Kranz’s directorial debut shocks and impresses with its sharp language, and the cast is absolutely dynamite.

R, 110 minutes, Bleeker Street