Six years after their sons die in a school shooting, two sets of parents meet in a church basement. One boy was a victim. The other was his killer. This inconceivable meeting is the premise of Mass, the debut film from writer-director Fran Kranz, in theaters now.
Although gun violence is always topical in America, this is not a topical or political story. It’s an emotional one—a raw and honest drama that examines the nature of grief and forgiveness. Inspired by actual meetings that occur through initiatives like the Restorative Justice Project, the film requires heavy lifting from its audience. Being flies on the wall for one of the most painful human interactions imaginable is not easy, but just like the characters, viewers share the catharsis that comes from engaging in such grueling emotional work.
A small, but powerful cast
With a lesser cast, the film would probably stall. Four characters in one room with a dialogue-laden script is not a proven formula for holding an audience’s attention. But Kranz’s writing is taut and his actors are at the top of their craft. Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton play the victim’s parents. Ann Dowd and Reed Bierney are the shooter’s. While their performances are equally compelling, Isaacs’ layered, heart-wrenching work offers a powerful look at the relationship between masculinity and trauma.
Jay, Isaac’s character, couldn’t be more different from the villainous roles the actor has played in Harry Potter and The Patriot. In the aftermath of his son’s death, Jay’s become a passionate activist. He expends all of his emotional energy pursuing that work and maintaining a strong resolve for his wife and daughter.
“He’s a man who’s taken his pain and channeled it into something very positive,” Isaacs tells Men’s Journal. “But what he hasn’t done is acknowledged and processed his own feelings. Not just loss, but fury. These feelings for him have become calcified. He thinks he’s above the human interaction the film is about.”
The only ostensible reason Jay attends the meeting is to support his wife. He recognizes the importance of addressing her emotional needs, but sees activism as a sufficient coping mechanism for his own.
“He doesn’t think he’s burying pain and rage,” Isaacs says. “He doesn’t think there’s a tumult inside of him that needs to be dealt with. I think that’s a very male thing. The world trains us not to sit in our emotions and not to release our emotions. ‘There’s no value in it. The value is in getting things done and fixing problems.’ Those are the expectations we’re taught to have of ourselves.”
Traditional male responses to trauma
A wealth of research suggests Jay’s experience is a realistic depiction of the cultural forces that shape how men respond to trauma. A 2020 study led by Dr. Elizabeth Nielson looked at how adhering to traditional views of masculinity affected veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The researchers found subscribing to a belief system that “emphasizes achievement, toughness and emotional control while prohibiting appearances of weakness including expression of vulnerable emotions…creates a culture in which experiencing a traumatic event is emasculating.” In other words, the mere act of living through a trauma is unmanly.
The pervasiveness of this worldview, the study concluded, prevents many veterans from seeking help. The most effective and widely used therapies for treating PTSD involve acknowledging feelings of fear, shame, and guilt. Such emotions, Nielson says, “are considered antithetical to traditional masculinity.” Tragically and predictably, avoiding treatment increases the rate of negative mental health outcomes. American men are almost four times more likely to commit suicide than women, according to the CDC. The rate is even higher for veterans.
The trauma Jay has suffered in Mass is different from combat trauma, but his response is rooted in the same culturally conditioned repression. Isaacs’ soul-scraping performance unveils the civil war that trauma can unleash on a man’s soul. In grieving his son, Jay’s mind has tried to stifle his heart.
Jason Isaacs on trauma
“One of the things that happens around grief is people think their feelings are inappropriate because they’re not thinking or feeling the right things at the right time,” Isaacs says. “But there is no right time.”
Over the course of a quietly successful, four-decade career, Isaacs has discerned a foundational truth of the human experience.
“If I’ve learned anything emotionally from being someone who trades in emotions,” he says, “it’s that there are no wrong feelings. There are just feelings. And if you don’t acknowledge what they are––and that you’ve got them––then they start to get warped.”
When the audience first meets Jay, he has marooned himself on an island. He doesn’t think he’s like the three other broken parents in the church basement, especially the monsters who raised the monster that killed his son. Being thrust into such an acute interaction, however, forces him to engage his emotions.
“If your life is crippled by blame, guilt, and rage,” Isaacs says, “encountering people who you no longer see as human beings can begin to crack the walls you’ve built around yourself.”
The concept of forgiveness looms large in Mass. The film treats reconciliation as a painful yet salutary process. Human connections offer a flicker of hope for grappling with even the darkest human tragedies. This is not wishful thinking on the part of writer-director Kranz. The positive impact of social connections on men’s mental health is easy to see.
Overcoming barriers to social connections
A 2018 study led by Dr. Sarah McKenzie found that stereotypes about men’s social connectedness “position men as problem solvers and doers, rather than listeners and talkers.” This could prevent men from seeking social support during difficult life events.
“Maintaining the façade that men do not talk or confide about their personal issues or emotions is problematic and could act as a barrier for those men who choose to actively seek emotional support from their networks,” McKenzie says.
But when men are able to overcome this barrier, building social connections has proven beneficial to their mental health. “Not only can it normalize men’s experiences and help to reduce feelings of social isolation at times of significant distress, as this study demonstrates,” McKenzie says, “but it can also lead men to shift their practice and pursue more open, supportive relationships with others in the longer term.”
Jay’s emotional journey in Mass holds a magnifying glass over this process. It makes for gripping viewing, but it also paints a faithful, empathetic portrait of suffering and healing.
“Great drama is only great because it reflects the experiences of real life,” Isaacs says.
Mass is a great drama for many reasons, but one of its most critical aspects is how it reflects the experience of men overcome by the weight of invisible pain. Even as talking about mental health becomes less taboo, we still haven’t figured out how to dismantle the stigma of male vulnerability. Telling stories that do can go a long way.
If you’re seeking therapy or tools that make the barrier to entry less daunting, heed the advice in these stories: