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Film: Mass

11 March 2022

Stephen Brown enters into four parents’ agony

Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) in Mass

Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) in Mass

THE debut writer-director Fran Kranz’s film Mass (Cert. 12A) was inspired by America’s worst school massacre and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. He narrows it down by focusing on two couples foregathering at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Hailey, Idaho.

Jay and Gail Perry (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) park adjacent to a barbed-wire fence that bears a red ribbon, symbolic of, among other things, hope and love. They hesitate about going inside. A nervy church official fusses around, rearranging the basement furniture. “Table, chairs, Jesus watching us,” Jay wryly remarks, noticing the crucifix on the wall.

A social worker has organised a meeting between the Perrys and Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd). They know each other a bit. Everything is rather awkward. Linda brings flowers. Husbands exchange journey details. Gail, politely withdrawn, seethes with anger. We learn that these are the parents of teenage boys, killed in a high-school shooting spree, including the son of Jay and Gail. Richard and Linda are father and mother of the disturbed young murderer, who finally turned the gun on himself.

For almost two hours, we share their grief, bewilderment, hostility, and search for meaning. It is an opportunity, six years on from the incident, to emerge from the quagmire of legal and financial issues in which everyone has been immersed. Jay and Gail understandably see themselves, along with the parents of nine other children, as injured parties.

It becomes clear that Richard’s and Linda’s son was also a victim, a deranged child, who, in their eyes, displayed insufficient evidence of his intentions. There had been signs — the construction of a pipe bomb — which they had mistaken as experimental scientific interest. The Perrys seize on this.

“How could you believe that?” they cry, their need for someone to blame all too apparent. “Because I wanted to,” Linda laments. She and her husband continue to love their son, despite his heinous crimes. The men, in particular, are looking for scapegoats, whether it is violent computer games, gun-control laws, or even the devil. The wives bring everyone back to the central need, painful as it will be, to find some peace of mind.

The superbly sensitive acting is heartbreaking to witness. One feels for them all. If to understand is literally to stand under another, then it is Linda’s empathetic interventions that give the lead. That way, forgiveness lies. There is, however, nothing pat about how the film addresses that element. Gail and Jay have harboured a desire for retributive justice, wanting to see the other couple in pain; but will that assist any healing?

Mass is an ambiguous title, having associations with massacre and mass killings; but, given the church setting, it’s a clarion call to those parents: Ite, missa est; Mass is ended; go in peace. As the couples leave, they hear the church choir practising John Fawcett’s hymn “Blest be the tie that binds Our hearts in Christian love”, including the lines “We shall still be joined in heart, And hope to meet again.” It is a call for reconciliation, both here and hereafter.

Available in selected cinemas, on Sky Cinema, and streaming service.

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