What kind of parent raises a mass murderer? What would the aftermath of a school shooting be like for the parents of the child who shot his classmates and then took his own life. Unimaginable? Mass, Fran Kranz’s writing and directorial debut, immerses viewers in these questions, challenging us to consider our capacity for forgiveness.
Throughout the film, we are a fly on the wall of a church basement, observing a conversation between the parents of a boy who was killed in a school shooting and the parents of the boy who shot him. We first meet Gail and Jay Perry (Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs), who seem to have set up the meeting. It’s only through the conversation that ensues between the Perrys and the other couple, Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Anna Dowd), that we begin to realize who is who and what exactly transpired: Six years earlier, Hayden, Richard and Linda’s son, set off a homemade bomb in Evan Perry’s high school classroom and then shot several students before taking his own life.
The exchange between the families begins cordially. Gail shares pictures of Evan with Linda and the families make small talk about each of their living children. And then the conversation quickly deepens. The Perrys want Richard and Linda to take responsibility for what happened. Richard and Linda apologize frequently throughout the film, but the Perrys can’t offer forgiveness. It almost seems like they want to see Richard and Linda suffer. But it’s painfully evident that Richard and Linda have indeed suffered — silently — and in ways that the Perrys have not. In the years since the shooting, Richard and Linda’s marriage has dissolved. They were sued several times by the parents of the other victims. And most profoundly, they were not — and are not — publicly permitted to grieve the loss of their son.
Dowd brings nuance to the character of Linda: a sweet, empathetic woman who was terrified of her son, but still, even now, palpably loves him. At one point, through her tears, she asks Gail, “Isn’t it bad enough that I thought I was a good mother? How did I go wrong?”
Writer/director Fran Kranz has always been fascinated — and troubled — by the notion of forgiveness. As a college student, the actor, best known for his role as Topher Brink in the 2009-2010 TV series Dollhouse, learned about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Though the commission amazed and inspired Kranz, it also terrified him. “I knew deep down that I probably couldn't participate in something like that,” he told me during a recent conversation. “I probably wasn't capable of forgiveness or participating in the idea or effort of restorative justice.”
Years later, Kranz became a new parent and started reading about the mass shootings that seemed to dominate the news.
“I came across these meetings [between the parents of school shooters and school shooting victims], and I had to sort of confront those fears again.” He wondered what he would do if he were the parent of a child killed during a mass shooting. “Could I possibly come face-to-face with people I feel such blame towards or hate towards, in an effort to heal, in an effort to reconcile or even forgive?”
Through his research, Kranz was moved by the “humanity and goodness” he saw in the families of the mass shooters. “I didn't find monsters, I didn't find bad people, I found humans,” he said. “It looked complex: humanity making sort of tragic mistakes, but out of love. Parents desperately trying to figure out what to do, desperately, desperately caring for their child.”
It’s this inescapable humanity that challenges the Perrys — and by extension, the viewers — toward empathy and then, forgiveness.
In preparing to embody Linda, Dowd spent a lot of time thinking about her own experience as a mother.
“… There’s a point at which you can’t go as a mother,” Dowd told me in an interview. “Because imagine losing a child, imagine the child that took the lives of others and destroyed families and took his own life. It’s the unimaginable, isn’t it?”
Since screening Mass, I have not been able to stop replaying Linda's question in my mind. It is heartbreaking, but not hard to enter into the Perry family’s grief and to share in their righteous anger. It’s gut-wrenching and humbling to attempt to enter into Richard and Linda’s hollowed-out and lonely grief. To sit with the horror of what your child did and the guilt that you played a part. To still know and love the baby you bore and raised, even while you watch as the name you chose for your child becomes a byword.
In the film, Linda shares how Hayden was bullied, and we watch Gail visibly soften at this information. Empathy enters the conversation here, finally bringing about — spoiler — the forgiveness that Gail can’t help but offer to Linda. Radical empathy makes radical forgiveness possible.
Kranz never intended to make an overtly Christian film, but the power of the gospel — God's empathy made incarnate — still breaks into the story.
The story of Jesus is the story of the divine partaking in humanity, not content to be a fly on the wall of our muddled and painful conversations, but fully present and involved. The story of Jesus pulls in a young woman who is asked to do the unimaginable: allow herself and her family to become shamed and despised by a divine pregnancy. She learns that her baby boy is destined “to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).
Mary watches as her beautiful baby boy, the one she nursed, and lovingly bathed, whose body she must have delighted in kissing, smelling, holding, is counted with the worst of humanity, tortured, and murdered. It is, indeed, the unimaginable.
And yet it’s divine, radical empathy that allows Mary’s son to offer forgiveness to the angry crowd delighting in his demise. Through Jesus we can know the God “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). The power of the gospel is that God’s divine empathy and capacity for forgiveness is on offer, for us to take and then to freely give. What was once utterly unimaginable, now becomes possible.
Mass opened in Los Angeles and New York on Oct. 8 and will be released to a wider audience today.