Finding Clarity in Claustrophobia: ‘Mass’ and ‘The Humans’

The Humans Movie Essay - 2021 Stephen Karam Film

In the 2021 American films Mass (directed by Fran Kranz) and The Humans (directed by Stephen Karam), almost exclusively single-location settings emphasize geographical stasis and confined narrative stages, but these settings produce different cinematic results. Kranz’s debut film casts four adults (two sets of parents) in a 110-minute conversation between the mother and father of a school shooting victim and the mother and father of the shooter. The discussion happens six years after the tragedy and takes place at a church in Idaho. Karam’s The Humans, an adaptation of his own one-act play of the same name, brings three generations of a Pennsylvania family together to celebrate Thanksgiving at an apartment in lower Manhattan. The night unfolds with jokes, small talk, occasional tension and an unsettling revelation. The Humans often allows its characters to leave the dining room, but it’s as restricted to the nooks and crannies of its rundown, barely-furnished apartment as Mass is to its nondescript church backroom. In Karam’s film, characters must get up, walk around and leave rooms in order to back out of potentially damaging conversations with their loved ones; in Kranz’s film, characters are largely frozen in their seats at the table, confronting the opposing couple with the cold, hard intention of getting answers. In Mass and The Humans, the single location is used as a platform for ideas that seek universal understanding and collective empathy. Kranz and Karam set up dramatic arenas of claustrophobia and captivity to try and reach a liberating, transcendent clarity.

Mass is bookended with images of spaces beyond its church backroom but only provides a single shot (used twice) of somewhere other than the backroom while the meeting between Gail (Martha Plimpton), Jay (Jason Isaacs), Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney) takes place. This anomalous, cryptic shot is of a field with barbed wire around it, with a mountainous backdrop. The timestamps are 01:06:00 and 01:12:00. The minimalist design of Mass — primarily one location, using nine actors in total, shot with conservative cinematography, using little music — invites the kind of active viewing experience that is best executed with a pen and paper in hand or helped by an aptitude for mental note-taking. The first mention of the elephant in the room, the school shooting, comes at 00:34:00; the first reference to the use of a homemade pipe bomb in the incident comes at 00:47:00; confirmation of the’s shooter’s death arrives at 00:58:00. Other landmark timestamps in Mass bring movements away from the focal table: at 00:26:00, Gail gets up to fetch a tissue box for Linda (one of the film’s key props, strategically moved around and repositioned after this point like a queen being shifted around a chess board), and at 01:02:00, Ray goes to a different table in the back room to get a bottle of water, with the announcement “I can’t breathe in this room.”

For its meticulous rhythm, the viewing experience of Mass is mimetic, duplicating the spatial and conversational suffocation of the four characters by imposing a painstakingly engaged response from the viewer. Put more simply: this is method watching. The audience could never possibly be in the room with Gail, Jay, Linda and Richard, but Mass captures the feeling of being as claustrophobically confined as them as accurately as it ever could. Every cut to a different character at the table is a breath of air, and the two shots of the field with barbed wire fencing are huge sighs of momentary relief; every contribution to the overload of new information about the child shooter is as difficult to process as it is for the grief-stricken parents. The audience must reconstruct the character’s past from an attention to verbal detail in the present, and in alignment with the shocked and inconsolable Gail and Jay.

In this regard, the uses of temporality and tense in Mass are complex but provoke a forensic approach of expanding the timeline of these fictional events, which are the most impactful form of fiction that can be written — fictional but universal, specific enough to generate a strong affective connection to but relatable enough that many will generate this connection. It is no coincidence that the urgency of school shootings populates all kinds of recent contemporary cinema, from the 2016 documentary Tower to the animated short If Anything Happens I Love You (2020) to the independent feature The Fallout (2021). Like these works, Mass is far from polemical or didactic, though. Kranz’s film balances universality with specificity in order to go into detail about a particular, fictional instance that would so easily fit into America’s long history of school shootings. Gail addresses this careful navigation of state of the nation discourse, reminding Richard that “I didn’t come here to talk politics.” This singular case study was motivated by the 2018 Parkland shooting, as Kranz has discussed in interviews, but is treated with humanist depth and detail rather than being attached to a wider political conversation, whether it’s through tactics of relaying necessary background information about the years leading up to this meeting to Gail and Jay (for example, Linda and Richard being unable to bury their son because no memorial service would take them) or relaying necessary information to the viewer (such as the repeat discussion of the “letters” that the four have been exchanging over the years), or to both (the shooter’s trips to a gun range and the details of his time in therapy).

Read More at VV — Know the Cast: ‘The Humans’

The Humans Movie Essay - Comparison to 2021 Fran Kranz Film Mass

But the purpose of the meeting is not just to learn more about how Linda and Richard’s son arrived at the point of taking a gun into school and killing several people. Early on, as Jay pulls up at the church, Gail says, “Keep driving. I’m not ready for this.” The moment demonstrates how it is essential that the meeting has a productive outcome and that any alternative would not suffice. The vital outcome is to be at peace with what has happened, to forgive, because as Gail says: “I can’t live like this anymore.” Everything else is secondary: knowing the life story of Linda and Richard’s son (Gail backtracks from a line such as “Why do I wanna know about your son?”); the possibility of spiritual enlightenment (as the film goes on, Jay forgets his observation when they are first led into the room: “Jesus watching us… great”); the exchanges of photographs and flowers to keep their therapists happy; the fleeting half-conversations about gun laws, etc.

The key to finding this peace is the past, particularly the opportunity the past offers Gail and Jay for understanding Linda and Richard better, for realizing that this is not their fault and that they should be forgiven even if their son can never be. The four parents’ extraction of information from their own pasts is ultimately more important than the histories of the two children. As Gail and Jay learn, parental powerlessness supersedes the possibility of parental failure — Linda, heartbroken, states that “I thought we were good parents.” Elsewhere in the film, Richard tells Gail and Jay that “I didn’t want another child, but once he was born, I loved him so much, but maybe he should have never been born.” Richard fluctuates between joy and regret within the same sentence, accentuating the bottom line that he and Linda are and always have been completely helpless. This is the parent’s relationship to a child, after all: parental love that defies power, reason or conditioning, coupled with the child’s dangerous freedom to grow into the kind of adult that the parents no longer recognize.

On the other hand, the clarity the characters of The Humans seek is not spelled out as conveniently for the audience. The Blake family gathers at the new but almost empty apartment of Brigid Blake (Beanie Feldstein) and partner Richard (Steven Yeun) in Lower Manhattan, and this viewing experience allows one to slowly and gradually piece together what is happening without anticipating a narrative destination. The viewer is implicated in the drama like in Mass, as Karam’s writing keeps the audience in the dark for as long as his characters. The use of confined space in this shared experience between viewer and character is enhanced by Lol Crawley’s camerawork, which contrasts with Ryan Jackson Healy’s consistent medium wide shots and close-ups in Mass through a mix of wides, close-ups, low and high angles; shots from doorways or from another room looking in; shots within the room where the focal conversation is happening. Mass is underpinned by the last of these, but the single, lengthy conversation filling Kranz’s runtime is different to the many discussions that populate The Humans, which often play out in full and are sometimes cut off; they frequently involve the whole cast of characters and some of them are, at times, restricted to one room in the apartment and are at other moments spread between multiple spaces.

Particularly when individuals either find themselves or voluntarily choose to be separate from the rest of the family, character purposes and objectives present themselves. As in Mass, these purposes and objectives offer the key to achieving clarity. At one stage, Brigid’s sister Amy (Amy Schumer) locks herself in the bathroom for a while, struggling with both her inflammatory bowel disease (that could have life-threatening complications) and her mental health (having just broken up with her girlfriend, who she phones shortly after this lengthy visit to the toilet). At another, the mother (Deirdre, played by Jayne Houdyshell) has a discrete cry at the dinner table, long after the Thanksgiving leftovers and the plates have been cleared away and when she is alone. At another, Deirdre’s isolation is presented as absence, as her daughters joke about her recent letters/emails in the dining room while she is elsewhere, which their father puts an end to by saying that they should spend more time writing back. At another, Grandma (“Momo,” June Squibb) gets lost, which panics the rest of the family because she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

Read More at VV — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘The Humans’

The Humans Movie Essay - 2021 Stephen Karam Film

But the most frequent moments of character isolation are the father’s (Richard Jenkins as Erik), who — as it’s revealed in the third act — has gathered the family for more than just eating and drinking. The man tells his shocked, disappointed daughters that he has lost his teaching job after an affair with a colleague. Erik tells them to not worry, as he and their mother are working it out, even if they have taken a hit financially as a result of the job loss and therefore “sold the lake property.” This revelation is teased early on in The Humans, when Karam provides an intense close-up of a nervous Erik looking out of a window. The character zones out but snaps back into reality when Amy enters the room and startles him. There is another scene where Erik himself must regain composure in the bathroom, his head in his hands and his fast breathing audible. There is yet another where Erik wanders upstairs alone, claiming to be putting his head out of the window to get a phone signal and check an important sports score, the truth of which is left ambiguous. The attempts to find clarity in The Humans — for both the audience and the characters — are in the hands of the broken Blake family patriarch, who hopes for unity and harmony despite what he must tell his daughters he has done. Erik’s mistake anchors the narrative, giving the film shape and structure which are transparently clear to the viewer as soon as Jenkins’ character confesses. Like in Mass, the past holds together the present tense of The Humans, determining its foundations and its makeup, while simultaneously being in control of how this present will evolve into a future.

Before Erik’s announcement, The Humans emphasizes its own precarity. Like its apartment setting, it barely holds together — which is a desired effect, representing a family union predicated on discrepancies between appearance and reality. Dad has a secret, Mum is stifling a cry, Amy is spending time with her family when what she really wants to do is talk it out with her ex; Brigid only speaks about the latest music she has written (her true passion) when Richard nudges her to; Richard himself exaggerates his efforts to please his new family, diffusing tension between his partner and her mother and apologizing profusely for the state of the apartment (from “all we have is these plastic cups” onwards, when he wants to distribute the champagne the Blake parents have brought but struggles to). These characters are like their setting, the new apartment that is devoid of furniture and falling apart at the seams which acts as a seventh character in The Humans. More unrestricted and free to wander than Healy’s camera in Mass, Crawley’s cinematography shows peeling wallpaper, rusty radiators, visible bits of paintwork touching up, moldy walls and even a mattress leaning against a wall in one room and a computer projection of a fireplace in another. The film moves through this precarious space either in plain sight or through the apartment’s pipes, giving Crawley’s camera a spectral quality that befits a film in which family conversations are interspersed by possible communications from a ghost that only Erik arguably sees (on his own in The Humans’ final moments, unless the old lady walking past the front door is in fact just a neighbor). Before this, the evidence of the ghost emerges through loud bumps upstairs when the family are in the kitchen and flickering lights when they are in another room. If the camera acts as another ghost, as viewers we constitute a third by lurking at the edge of the frame and watching the domestic fabric unravel.

The audience’s position as a voyeuristic witness is similar in Mass, a film which is equally interested in creating a claustrophobic, almost exclusively single-location dramatic space that would be airtight if it did not leave just enough of a gap for the viewer to occupy this space alongside the characters. By the end of Mass, Kranz’s characters have largely resolved their issues; they have successfully done what they came to the small Idaho church to do, they have found peace. The Humans, meanwhile, uses its runtime to open up rather than close in. Erik sees the ghost and gets shaken to his core, and the film ends having likely changed his life irrevocably, which is similar to the impact his confession of an affair will have on his daughters and has already clearly had on his wife. Additionally, The Humans gestures towards a wider conversation about the collapse of America’s economic empire, which contradicts Mass’ efforts to limit this bigger, national picture as captured in Gail’s line “I didn’t come here to talk politics.”

Read More at VV — Know the Cast: ‘In Good Hands’

The Humans Movie Essay - Comparison to 2021 Fran Kranz Film Mass

In the Blake family’s Thanksgiving conversations, they address America’s politics and economics head-on: “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” Erik asks Richard, talking about his washing machine back home that needs fixing and about how he has resorted to cutting his own hair to save money, but really hinting at having lost his job (as he reveals later in the film). Erik’s daughter Amy has also lost her job, and his daughter Brigid is living in a rundown apartment with her partner. At one point in The Humans, Erik and his wife discuss an influx of younger, more qualified colleagues joining her workplace and threatening her confidence in the stability of her own position. The claustrophobia in The Humans transcends its confined narrative setting, just as is it does in Mass, despite the four parents’ priority of finding clarity to their specific grieving process rather than resolving America’s gun problem more generally. Mass’ characters escape confinement even if the national issue centralized by their film does not, whereas The Humans’ Blake family may leave the apartment at the end of the film, but both they and the subject of America’s economic fracture more broadly are even more claustrophobically contained than when Karam’s film started. As a word, claustrophobia’s defining fears are what The Humans pinpoints: the inability to leave and the subsequent difficulty to breathe.

George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) is a published short fiction and freelance film writer. He is also a PhD candidate at King’s College London. Recent and upcoming film publications include Bright Lights, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Luma Quarterly, and Off Screen.