Mass, or Wherein I Wax Rhapsodic about a Heavy Film

I went to see the film Mass yesterday. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. 

I cheerfully admit that I initially wanted to see it just because Jason Isaacs is in it. I’d watch literally anything he’s in. I was excited to get to see this because it was a Sundance Film Festival movie and who actually sees those? But it got a limited distribution in select cinemas (and hopefully will eventually be available to buy). I got a ticket as soon as it was released in the one cinema that was showing it in AZ.

You guys. This movie made me cry. In public. It’s possible there was snot involved and an audible sob or two. These things are not done in my family. Don’t make a spectacle. But I kind of did. If anyone can watch this without being moved to tears, they’re a heartless monster and I feel genuine pity for them.

The premise of the film is that, six years earlier, there was a mass shooting at a school. Two couples whose children died that day met to talk. One couple’s son was the first victim found by the police. The other couple’s son was the shooter. The entire film took place in a single room that had been set up in a church specifically for the couples to meet.

The performances that followed from all four actors were nothing short of astonishing. 

Jay and Gail (played by Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton, respectively) lost their son when he was killed by the son of Linda and Richard (played by Ann Dowd and Reed Birney, respectively). I hope I never, ever have first hand knowledge of this, but Jason and Martha nailed the portrayal of grieving and furious parents. They had a whole backstory that Jay had become an activist for gun reform, which totally makes sense. But prior to meeting with Linda and Richard, they had agreed not to bring any of his activism up, not to be political, and not to interrogate Linda and Richard. At one point, Gail shot Jay what can only be called A Look that screamed “stop talking, Jay!” and he instantly shut up. At other times, one or the other would give a different Look, or lay a hand on the other’s arm, or shift in their chair, and it communicated exactly what was needed at that moment. It was as though the actors actually were a couple and had a long history behind them and could exchange a world of words with a glance. It felt voyeuristic, like we were sneaking peeks at a therapy session. It was something terribly intimate and painful and improper to witness, and yet that was the whole point.

I really loved the way Jason and Martha showed the rage, indignation, and helpless despair and grief their characters must have dealt with. The body language was complex and nuanced. Every little flinch, crossing of arms, side glance meant something and added to the overall story. I thought Martha especially did a phenomenal job here. Initially Gail was stiff, as though coming close to Linda and Richard or making a gesture of civility was physically painful. She hesitated and didn’t seem to want to move within a certain distance of them as though proximity to them was unbearable, but just as clearly drew some strength from Jay’s nearness. 

I should note here, perhaps, that when it comes to movies, I tend to be a fairly shallow viewer. I can analyse the shit out of any book you put in front of me, but I have never done so with movies. I just want to be entertained in some way without too much thought. It is a testament to how good these actors are that I even noticed their body language. 

Speaking of body language. I fully expected to empathize with Gail and Jay. But I was in no way prepared to sympathize with the shooter’s parents! I think the assumption is usually that the parents are always to blame and they don’t deserve sympathy; after all, they raised a monster that slaughtered his classmates. They must be just as fucked up, or totally lacking in human decency, or have something wrong with them to have spawned a school shooter. We always need someone to blame. But both of them, especially Linda, exuded a deep sense of shame and guilt regarding their son’s actions, as well as defensiveness when they felt they needed to explain their or their son’s actions. It was clear that, despite everything he did, they loved their son and missed him, and also that they felt guilty for acknowledging that love in front of parents whose child their son murdered. They were a pretty normal couple raising their kids in a normal way. They made mistakes like we all do, only theirs ended up costing a bunch of kids their lives when they failed to see how badly their kid needed help. They weren’t abusive, they weren’t absent, they weren’t whores or mob bosses or anything. They were regular people who had a horrible son and they missed some things and a tragedy happened. Ann and Reed both portrayed their characters with sensitivity and depth that made them human and believable, despite their son. I didn’t expect to feel bad for them but I did, and I’m still not sure how I feel about that.

I also really liked that the film wasn’t political. It so easily could have been. I think it just heightened the commentary underlying the story – that we are a profoundly sick society and there is no one simple way to go about healing us. The apolitical nature will hopefully get other people to watch who may otherwise have been turned off by the topic. This is a good thing because I think everyone should see this film and see real ways in which gun violence affects people without having an agenda shoved down their throats. 

The only thing I didn’t like was that a couple times the scene shifted to an empty field with barbed wire and a red ribbon caught on it. I could go on for days about the symbolism inherent in that if I had to. But really all it did was break up a couple exceptionally emotional scenes and drew me out of the film rather abruptly. I think that was a bad idea on the director’s part and leaving the weird symbolic woo stuff out would have better allowed the audience to remain in that moment with Jay and Gail, Linda and Richard. They cannot escape their emotions; the audience shouldn’t get to, either. We should go on this small part of the journey with them.

There is so much more I could say about this movie. I know I’ll see something new every time I watch it, assuming that I’ll be able to buy it eventually. I truly believe this is a film that everyone should see, in particular every single elected official. 

But my ultimate conclusion is this: 

If all four of these actors don’t get Academy Awards for their truly gut wrenching, evocative, and superlative acting, then the Academy has utterly failed and is deeply, irretrievably fucked. These amazing humans turned out absolutely stunning, career-highlight performances and they deserve every accolade they can get. 

Medusa’s Ankles

Medusa's Ankles
Screenshot from Vimeo

As anyone who follows my blog knows, I usually do book reviews. However, I recently watched a short film, discovered because of my unabashed infatuation with Jason Isaacs, called Medusa’s Ankles. It was directed by Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley of Harry Potter fame), adapted from the short story of the same title by AS Byatt. You can read it here. You can, and should, also stream the film for free here on Vimeo.

Medusa’s Ankles shows Susannah, a middle aged Classicist, who is concerned about signs of aging. She wanders into a salon, owned by Lucian, because she’s drawn to the Matisse painting in the lobby. She becomes rather infatuated with him over the months she comes to his salon, eventually coming unhinged and wreaking havoc on his newly remodeled salon when she hates the style Lucian’s assistant gave her.

There was so much character development in this tiny little film. It was about 20 minutes long and in that time, we see Susannah evolve from a meek and retiring woman to someone a little bolder, and eventually to an hysterical basketcase. Of course, her fit wasn’t really because of a hairdo. It was years of worrying over her aging and feeling out of place in her own skin as well as in a society which seems to be gearing more and more towards the younger generations. She feels left behind, unattractive, unwanted, and scorned. That Lucian, the object of her fixation, is another source for these emotions contributes to her snapping at the end. 

Unlike Susannah, Lucian is flighty and temperamental, never landing on one thing for long. He is essentially her complete opposite, and yet he comes to be a person she relies upon in some ways. She goes to him to help her see a younger version of herself, which will never happen, and when she realizes this, she snaps. Lucian helps her to see that younger self but it is, of course, illusory, as is his interest in her as a person. He is vain and shallow, telling Susannah that he is leaving his wife because ‘She’s let herself go. It’s her own fault. She’s let herself go altogether. She’s let her ankles get fat, they swell over her shoes, it disgusts me, it’s impossible for me.’ He is too self-absorbed to realise that his comments hit home for Susannah, who also has fat ankles now, and his comment serves as a catalyst for her destroying his salon. 

The link to Greek myth is interesting. At first, it isn’t clear what Medusa has to do with anything, but it becomes clear that she – and her ankles – are a proxy for women and being weighed down by the expectations of men. Medusa was once beautiful and then she was transformed into a monster. Susannah seems to view herself in this way as well, acknowledging that she was never beautiful but was attractive, then remembering a day spent with an Italian lover when she was young. Her body, which doesn’t feel like she remembers or wants it to, brings her back to present with a jolt when she realizes that her reflection is like her mother’s had been, all fake and unreal and trying entirely too hard to look young again. 

Her fit and destruction of Lucian’s salon may be a catharsis, but Lucian himself gives her permission and tells her it’s ok, the insurance will pay for it and he kind of wants out anyway. When she gets home, her husband really sees her for the first time in a long while and kisses her neck. Are both these instances freeing for Susannah, or do they reflect more of the control men have on society? Lucian essentially pats her on the head and sends her home when he should have rightfully been pissed off. Is her husband’s approval something she desires and feels good about, or is it effectively Perseus cutting off Medusa’s head? It raises a lot of interesting questions. I would love to analyze this in a proper literature course. 

Also, I just want to say that I think Jason Isaacs is a seriously underrated actor. I don’t say that just because I’m currently in love with him; it’s because he can inhabit the lives of so many different people in a totally convincing way. Not all, or even most, actors can do that. Actors like Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise might be famous and popular, but they all generally play the same kind of character. Ford is usually a dorky hero, whether he’s playing Han Solo, Indiana Jones, or the President of the United States; Cruise is generally an arrogant hero. Not so with Isaacs. He has played a wide range of characters including a racist, aristocratic bully (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies); an Irish-American mobster from Rhode Island, complete with the heavy accent (Michael Caffee in Brotherhood); an arrogant and disinterested charmer (Lucian in Medusa’s Ankles); and a morally questionable, warmongering Starfleet captain (Gabriel Lorca in Star Trek Discovery). And he doesn’t just play villains in everything. He was a super dorky yet sexy dad in The Chumscrubber, a possibly mentally ill cop in the TV series Awake, an elegant ambassador in The State Within, and a beleaguered detective in Case Histories. He is utterly believable in every single role, and not one of his villainous roles, of which there are many, are at all similar to one another. I think he is in no danger of being typecast.