How should a mother grieve a murderous child? That’s one of the questions at the center of “Mass,” a new movie out Friday, Oct. 8, in which Ann Dowd plays the mom of a high school shooter. Dowd said the emotional intensity of the story was crucial in director Fran Kranz’s decision to film the psychological drama in chronological order.
“We filmed the beginning and the end within a four-day period, first — everything that didn’t take place in the room itself — and once we got in the room, we shot for eight days, in sequence,” Dowd, 65, told The Post.
The “room” to which Dowd referred is in the basement of a church. That’s where Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs) — whose son, Evan, was one of 10 killed in the attack — are, six years later, meeting with Linda and Richard (Dowd, Reed Birney), the now-divorced parents of the shooter, Hayden, who killed himself after wreaking his carnage.
The bulk of “Mass,” which opened to acclaim in January at the Sundance Film Festival, plays out in that claustrophobic room, where the four parents sit around a small table and begin to talk, awkwardly at first, about the incident — before cycling through hatred, sympathy and cautious understanding. Ultimately, each character experiences a personal epiphany in trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy.
“I think what happens [with Linda], honestly, as a parent . . . the thought of losing a child, not only a child but a child who has brought about the tragedy of loss for so many families — not only that, but he took his own life — it’s unimaginable. It’s impossible to comprehend,” said Dowd, a mother of three.
“Life as they know it is completely over, and I think Linda’s life is shattered in ways that you and I cannot comprehend. There is no point in any defense, no point in building up a wall . . . no point in anything, except trying to live life one minute at a time.”
Dowd, who won an Emmy for her portrayal of evil Aunt Lydia on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” walks a fine line in “Mass.” Linda, by turns, sympathizes and empathizes with Gail and Jay and tries to answer their searching, angry questions: Why were red-flag warning signs ignored, including Hayden building and setting off a pipe bomb (for which he was arrested) before unleashing his high school massacre? She doesn’t defend her son. “The love we had, it was real,” she says. “I raised a murderer.”
“She doesn’t expect forgiveness from these people — she has no expectation of that. What she wants to do is to offer anything she can to help them understand,” Dowd said. “It doesn’t change the love, and I think that’s where she lives, in that place of profound honesty: ‘I know it and it won’t make sense to you, but my life would not have been better without my son.’”
It’s obvious from the get-go that Linda and Richard are not on the same page regarding Hayden. He’s destroyed their marriage and thrown up a wall between them as they grappled with the tragedy; Richard is initially aloof and almost defiant in defending how they raised their son. “It’s everything you cannot see,” he says, coolly, regarding his son’s mental state.
“Doesn’t that make total sense? That, of course, [Linda and Richard] are not going to make it,” Dowd said. “She was the peacekeeper, the interpreter: ‘Honey, he didn’t mean it that way, he wasn’t being cruel.’ She was covering for Hayden.”
We learn, on the day of the massacre, that Linda and Richard were alerted that something horrible happened at the school; they returned home, separately, to a massive police presence, but were kept apart while being questioned about their son. Dowd said that, shortly before her interview with The Post, a personal experience reminded her of how a mother is all-about her children — whatever the outcome.
“Last night, my boy, who’s 16, [he] goes to school in New Hampshire and took the train alone for the first time to Boston, where he was going to be picked up,” she said. “I got a call — ‘He didn’t get off the train’ — and everything stopped. That was it. I went straight to panic. The world stopped. Then I got a call within 20 minutes telling me that he’d fallen asleep and got off at the wrong stop, and they found him and that all is well.
“In that period, I thought to myself, ‘Can you imagine Linda and Richard . . . not knowing what happened, but knowing it’s horrible, and not knowing if their son is dead or what happened and why the police are here?’. “Can you even imagine?”