The films trying to make sense of senseless violence

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

Indeed, their attempts to gain control over what’s happened are shown to be deficient: the male characters, in particular, know the events inside out, effortlessly reeling off times and locations. “They think if they know exactly what happened, they’ll have an understanding of it and then it cannot affect them emotionally,” says Kranz. “That proves to be a fallacy in some ways, and there’s still a large element 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, poring over the specifics and focusing on the details of gunshots and adolescent school reports, won’t offer any real insight into these tragedies. For his part, when Kranz first conceived of Mass, he wasn’t interested in making a film about mass shootings that showed any of the violence. “This movie came from fear for my child and, and fear for my country and anxiety about the culture. I certainly wasn’t interested in depicting violence. I didn’t want to just observe – I wanted to offer something else.”

What Mass does offer is a conversation, even if the answers never quite satisfy the person asking the questions. What happened in the shooter’s childhood? What did the 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 shy away from how much they still blame themselves. Linda appears on the edge of tears throughout; Dowd plays her as a woman almost doubled over in pain. Meanwhile Birney explicitly spells out what Dowd embodies. “I regret everything,” Richard admits, “The worst outcome imaginable happened. Any change I could have done could have resulted in a different outcome. I regret everything.”

Above and beyond its characters’ meaningful but ultimately impossible search for answers, Mass offers the chance to confront loss. It ends on a moment of absolute silence, where the camera leaves the room and stares out over empty fields, a scene that Kranz wanted to use to reflect upon America’s collective grief. “I was looking for an image that could [come from] 40 out of 50 states and felt distinctly American. There is forgotten survey-tape, the field is dead grass with discarded water wheels, There’s an emptiness to it. It’s a landscape for grief. It changes over time but you never really get away from grief. By the end of the film, there’s the hope that these characters can live with this grief more easily – there’s possibility in the landscape for forgiveness and reconciliation, and to heal despite unimaginable tragedy”.

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

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