'Mass' review: 4 brilliant performances will grip you and not let go

Get ready for an emotional powerhouse that will haunt you from start to finish.

Get ready for an emotional powerhouse that will haunt you from the first scene to the last. "Mass," now in theaters, features four brilliant, bruising performances from Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Reed Birney and Ann Dowd that grip you and don't let go.

The seemingly benign themes put before us by Fran Kranz, a film and stage actor who makes a stunning feature debut as writer and director, are the ties that bind parents with their children. But this movie offers few tender mercies as it tackles one of the true plagues of modern times: school shootings.

In a quiet, sterile room in the back of a small Episcopal church, two couples sit around a table and talk through a tragedy that might or might not lead to closure. Their pain is an open wound that resists healing. And the film begins with all four dodging the subject.

It's been six years since 10 local high school students were killed by guns and explosives. Evan, one of the victims, was the son of Gail (Plimpton) and Jay (Isaacs). Hayden, the son of Linda (Dowd) and Richard (Birney), was the shooter who also killed himself.

Gail and Jay have agreed not to sue Linda and Richard for damages and all four have taken legal and therapeutic advice against venting anger and vindictiveness. But Gail and Jay desperately want to know if Linda and Richard saw warning signs in their bullied son and his immersion in violent video games.

Kranz calibrates the escalating passions of his film with intelligence and compassion. Many of the questions are piercing. Are the killer's parents allowed to share photographs of the son they loved, the way the victims' parents do? The actors vividly rise to the challenge of finding the grieving hearts of their characters.

Plimpton, who saw success with her early performance in "The Goonies" and later earned a Tony nomination for her role in the Broadway production of "The Coast of Utopia," gives the best performance of her career as Gail. Hardened by grief, she can't suppress the humanity that glimmers through her torment, especially when she recalls a simple happy moment with her son when he was just 12.

Isaacs, the British actor famed as Lucius Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" film series and Captain Gabriel Lorca on "Star Trek: Discovery," is revelatory as Jay gradually discovers that his rage at the parents of his son's killer will only poison what's left of his own life.

Birney, an inspired stage actor who won a Tony for "The Humans," tackles the toughest role in "Mass," as a father who suits up to distance himself from emotions that hurt too much. He finds it easier to blame his son's undiagnosed mental issues or a wife who reminds him of his weakness.

Then there's Dowd. An Emmy winner as sadistic Aunt Lydia on "The Handmaid's Tale," this consummate talent brings a cathartic potency to Linda, especially in a shattering final scene that expresses a parent's worst nightmare. The Oscar for best supporting actress belongs right here.

So, no, "Mass" doesn't make it easy for audiences. Kranz and his superlative cast are going to challenge you every step of the way. Go for it. The result is a movie that will take a piece out of you, a movie that matters.