Movies trying to make sense of senseless violence

More recent films that have tackled the issue of school shootings include the bold and brilliant 2018 drama Vox Lux, in which the pop-star protagonist is a shooting survivor, and the 2020 teen satire Spontaneous, which uses the metaphor of a school where students begin to explode spontaneously. Both, in different ways, explore the trauma that follows those who experience mass shootings and the remorse of the survivors they live with. Mass, which Kranz says is not inspired by any real-life event (“I pulled from so many different aspects and details of shootings that I had read about, just in schools, and I found aspects in everything that seemed truthful to the situation that conjured up in me”) also focuses on the indelible consequences of such events: six years later, the characters are not only devastated but also exhausted with pain. There is some hope for the characters to heal, forgive, and find joy in the future, but the film deliberately offers no easy answers or solutions.

Indeed, their attempts to take control of what happened prove flawed: the male characters, in particular, know the events like the back of their hand, effortlessly reeling out times and places. “They think that if they know exactly what happened, they will understand it and it cannot affect them emotionally,” says Kranz. “It turns out to be wrong in some ways, and there’s still a lot of their grief and anger that they haven’t necessarily exercised.” In this way, the film seems to offer a meta commentary on the films that came before it, suggesting that recreating events, leaning into details, and focusing on the details of teenage gunshots and school reports, n will offer no real insight into these tragedies. For his part, when Kranz first conceived of Mass, he wasn’t interested in making a movie about mass shootings that showed any violence. “This film was born out of fear for my child and fear for my country and anxiety about the culture. I certainly wasn’t interested in depicting violence. I didn’t just want to observe – I wanted offer something else.”

What the Mass offers is a conversation, even if the answers never quite satisfy the person asking the questions. What happened in the shooter’s childhood? What did school miss? Where could the police or his parents have intervened? Mass doesn’t blame Richard and Linda (Birney and Dowd) for what their son did, but it doesn’t suck how much they still blame themselves. Linda appears on the verge of tears everywhere; Dowd plays her like a woman almost doubled in pain. Meanwhile, Birney explicitly states what Dowd embodies. “I regret everything,” admits Richard, “The worst imaginable outcome has happened. Any changes I could have made could have resulted in a different outcome. I regret everything.”

Beyond its characters’ meaningful but ultimately impossible search for answers, Mass offers the opportunity to come to terms with loss. It ends with a moment of utter silence, where the camera leaves the room and gazes into empty fields, a scene Kranz wanted to use to reflect on America’s collective grief. “I was looking for an image that could [come from] 40 of the 50 states and felt distinctly American. There is a forgotten survey strip, the field is dead grass with abandoned water wheels, there is a void. It is a landscape of mourning. It changes over time, but you never really walk away from grief. At the end of the film, there is hope that these characters can live more easily with this grief – there is an opportunity in the landscape to forgive and reconcile, and to heal despite unimaginable tragedy.”

Mass was released in the UK on Sky Cinema and in cinemas on January 20, and is now available to stream in the US

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