‘Mass’ cast on acclaimed drama’s study of the aftermath: ‘How does the survivor survive?’

By Jami Ganz

School shootings are too familiar a headline these days, one quickly replaced by the next. But “Mass” asks us to look beyond the tragedies, to the parents left to pick up the pieces.

The directorial debut by writer-filmmaker and actor Franz Kranz premiered at Sundance earlier this year and quickly earned the praise of those who had witnessed the emotional journey of two grieving couples trying to come to terms with and understand the school shooting that took their teenage sons’ lives years earlier.

Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs) lost their son, Evan, to the rampage of Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard’s (Reed Birney) son, Hayden. And though no one is entirely sure how to go about it, the four have agreed to meet in an empty church room and unpack what brought them there.

“It’s not a film about a school shooting,” Plimpton, 50, told the Daily News. “It’s a film about what happens afterwards, about how do you move on, how do you survive? How does the survivor survive? How does the parent survive? How do you live with it?”

For Gail’s part, “She resents that she has been compelled to come here and do this. But she knows it’s necessary,” Plimpton explained. “The process of forgiving ... is a process and it’s not just a decision. It’s not a cut and dry thing. ... It’s a daily decision.”

Forgiveness might be something to work towards, but Linda is still trying to forgive herself, says Dowd, 65.

“I think she was the peacekeeper, without question. She was the one who was the connector between sons and father,” she told The News. “And then when the unimaginable happened, I think all her former self ... fell away. Completely fell away. And she lived in a level of honesty, where she had no expectation of forgiveness. She wanted to bring some level of peace if she could. And she wanted to strike to find that place in her that would forgive her for loving her son, despite all that happened, and where she thinks she might have failed.”

Guilt, in its varying forms, plays almost as large a role in the film as its four stars. After all, Gail wants to know how Linda and Richard could have missed signs that their son would do this, whether there were any concrete signs at all.

“If Hayden is a monster, then I don’t think Richard has any idea how to move forward, how to deal with the guilt of having parented a monster,” Birney, 67, told The News. “All he can do is hang on to the shreds of his life that he had from before.”

But of course, moving beyond requires confronting the gravity of the pain — something both fathers are reticent to do.

“Jay thinks he’s sorted out. Jay thinks he’s above the kind of human personal mess of it all. ... So he’s really only come to the room because he thinks his wife, Gail, needs sorting out,” Isaacs, 58, told The News. “He’s looked for, how can he fix things? And some things need to be fixed in messier ways than he’s managed.”

The film as a whole, similarly, does not offer the neat and clean package audiences seek out.

“Hollywood has simple answers, simple solutions so that credits can run and people can go ‘Phew,’ and ‘What do we eat?’ and forget what they’ve seen,” said Isaacs.

“And this, I think is so much richer and has so much more profound things to offer an audience because you come away with some understanding beyond the intellect, that human connection is the answer to so much in the division that we face every day.”

“Mass,” says Plimpton, is timely and not just because of the too-frequent horrors that caused the characters’ suffering.

“Whether this is a coincidence or not, I don’t know, especially now with our culture being so riven ... so coarse, that this film could not come at a more opportune time, you know, for us, rather than to focus on the violence, rather than focus on the pain or the anger or the resentment or recrimination, to focus on what do we do now?” said Plimpton. “Can we talk together? Can we sit down? Can we see one another? Can we listen to one another?”

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