There is a moment in the musical sensation Hamilton that has always made me laugh. During the song, “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which is one of the more profound moments in the play, as we are coming to realize that Hamilton and Eliza are reconciling, the chorus chimes in, “FORGIVENESS.” It is the lack of subtly in this lyric that cracks me up. In this quiet moment that converges these two central characters’ arcs, it is as if the choir turns to us to exclaim, “DO YOU GET IT? SHE IS FORGIVING HIM.” I wish forgiveness was so easy. I wish I could go to those who I’ve wronged and those who have wronged me and just sing, “FORGIVENESS,” and it would happen. The truth is, however, that in the human life few things are more difficult. That is what makes the new movie Mass so stunning. Just like that climactic tune in Hamilton, it captures forgiveness in the face of the unimaginable.
Mass, from actor turned first-time writer/director Fran Kranz, tells the story of two sets of parents meeting in a side room of a small rural church. The story that intersected the lives of these four people is one that is far too common in our society. The son of Linda and Richard acted as a gunman in a school shooting that took the life of the son of Gail and Jay. Now six years later they are coming together to find closure, to answer questions, and heal from the pain they all carry. There is only one salve that can heal this wound. It’s something Gail says in confidence to Jay she’s not sure if she can offer. Of course, it’s forgiveness.
It would be very easy for Mass to become an issue film. It could have made sweeping political statements about any number of hot button topics our world is facing. Certainly, those themes are present in their own way insomuch that they are mentioned quickly without resolution and then shelved. Richard and Jay briefly debate gun legislation. The group touches on how the media and legal system tossed them around and hurt them. Kranz work in telling this story, though, is keeping it focused not on a laundry list of external issues, but the issues in these parents’ hearts that prevent them from healing and moving on. Even how they get in this room in the first place could have been a distraction but that’s not the question Kranz is asking. He is more asking what if they did get in this room and were able to share their feelings. What could happen? In that regard it is a tight and focused film that allows the audience to focus on the performances and the deeper subject matter of repentance, humility, and forgiveness.
Mass, at times, feels like a stage play, and I’m not sure you could ask for better players. Apart from Jason Isaacs aka Lucius Malfoy for Harry Potter fans, none of these actors are traditionally leading women and men, but they all get moments to absolutely shine. The story sees each of them organically taking turns stepping to the plate to move the emotional depth forward. Martha Plimpton who is most known for her roles in sitcoms like Raising Hope and character actor Reed Birney really were able to go to some surprising places, but the clean-up hitter had to be Ann Dowd. The Handmaid’s Tale alum just kept hitting and hitting every time she stepped into the batter’s box. These characters all felt so authentic down to the well-meaning church employee who was tasked with setting up the room. She wasn’t there as window dressing. While she was setting up the space, she was creating the atmosphere for the entire film. Her anxiousness becomes our anxiousness.
Breeda Wool plays Judy and her small role struck me right to the heart. Having worked in churches for a while now I have known a bunch of Judys. In fact, I have been a Judy. She wants to believe in this level of reconciliation because that is who we hope God to be. Forgiveness is perhaps God’s greatest power, and when we offer it to our fellow human, we do get a chance to understand God in a new way. You can feel that Judy is hoping if she makes the room comfortable enough, if she gets the right refreshments, if the table is in the right location in the room, she is helping that effort to understand the character of God better. She is helping reconciliation happen.
That is what Christian hospitality looks like doesn’t it? We set up services, we offer resources, we put people in place so that if anyone were to need it, we’re there. I cheered for Judy in one moment when an overwhelmed Jay seeks out the bottles of water she provided and downs it in an instant. The space that Judy built is important and how it is staged throughout the film was masterful. It would be easy in a bottle movie like this to want the actors to move around and use the whole space, or at least overact to try and fill it with their presence. That’s not what happens. Kranz uses the space to supplement the story. It subtly evolves throughout the conversation. They begin in a very oppositional formation and, by the end, are in very different positions.
There is something so wonderfully human about Mass and the way its story is told. It was so engrossing to watch these very real people wrestle through their biggest doubts about themselves, their effectiveness as parents/people, the love they have for their children, and some of their deepest pain. I found myself so wrapped up in the performances I often got tunnel vision forgetting completely that I was watching a movie all together. The tunnel vision might have also been an optical illusion through the tears that were shed throughout. Forgiveness, can you imagine? Mass just might make it a little easier to.