MIDNIGHT MASS Review - Faith, Love and Monstrous Revelations
In her 5 Bloody Knife review, Kelly Mintzer rejoices the return of Mike Flanagan to Netflix with supernatural horror miniseries Midnight Mass, and calls it his most effective and fully realized creation to date.
Midnight Mass is the latest collaboration between Mike Flanagan and Netflix. The seven episode series follows the arrival of a charismatic priest to an isolated island community bringing with him miracles, mysteries and renewed religious fervour to a dying town whose existing divisions are amplified by the return of a disgraced young man. The notes for this review are five pages long, single spaced. A handful of those words credited to my own unmitigated enthusiasm for Mike Flanagan and his finest project to date, but the vast majority are the necessary end result of parsing an incredibly complex and nuanced narrative.
Flanagan has been open about Midnight Mass being something of a life’s work, and it feels every inch of it. Every aspect of the world of Crockett Island, each quirk of even seemingly minor characters is complete and fully realized. The miniseries tackles enormous, cosmic questions by shrinking them to a micro-level, making the metaphysical relatable and personal. It’s an absurdly ambitious project, and Flanagan makes it look easy.
The miniseries has a deceptively simple opening gambit. Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returns to his family home on Crockett Island. It is a small, isolated homogenous community, struggling to survive in a dwindling fisherman’s economy. Riley is haunted. He killed a woman in a drunk driving accident and having served his prison sentence, is trying to find some sort of purpose and meaning in his life. His ambitions and plans for his life are lost. He's also lost his faith, putting him at odds with the deeply religious island community. That disparity is drawn into even sharper relief when a charming new priest arrives.
Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) is a little odd and awkward. He is endearing and earnest, but trips over his words, a too enthusiastic puppy, until he preaches. His sermons shake the rafters. Riley observes Father Paul and his actions with an academic disconnect. Particularly, when the miracles start. These miracles are of all shapes and sizes. They range from raising young Leeza Scarborough (Annarah Cymone) from her wheelchair, after spending years paralyzed from the waist down, to smaller day-to-day improvements in the island's residents. Riley’s mother no longer needs to wear her glasses to read and his father's crippling back pain dissipates completely. Seemingly everyone who has taken communion with Father Paul has had their life improved in some tangible physical way.
The religious revival is tempered by the gentle skepticism of the island doctor, Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish) and Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli). Sarah is a woman of science who only remains on Crockett Island to take care for her ailing mother, Mildred (Alex Essoe). As a character, Sheriff Hassan is build on three major components that have relegated him an outsider. He wasn't born on Crockett Island, he's not Catholic, but Muslim and unlike many of the residents, he's not white. Hassan, Sarah and Riley are the subtle and persistent skeptics reminding us that miracles don’t just happen.
While it is tempting to deep dive into each character, we simply don't have the word count to do them all justice. However, it would be impossible to talk about Midnight Mass without discussing the character of Beverly Keane (Samantha Sloyan). As close to a villianous antagonist as the series gets, she is the encapsulation of carefully contained fanaticism. Keane is a true believer. She is adamant and certain of her own beliefs. She is also prepared to warp reality in whatever ways necessary to support those beliefs and her own world view. She's an easy character to hate with her self-righteous, condescending and manipulative demeanor. She is, in every way, aggressively human. Perhaps that’s why Keane is easy to despise. She represents all of the things we hate about ourselves.
Each and every performance in the series is amazing. Samantha Sloyan creates an absolutely essential entry into the canon of characters viewers love to hate in Beverly Keane. Rahul Kohli tempers Hassan’s deep sadness with an even deeper kindness. Zach Gilford, Annabeth Gish and Kate Siegel as Erin Greene round out the pragmatic triptych, and while their characters have a certain subtlety, all are moving portrayals. Let's not forget Hamish Linklater. The success of the series hinges heavily on the portrayal of Father Paul. If the character were some sort of sinister Svengali, the series would take on a meanness and destructive cruelty, but Linklater's portrayal of Father Paul is earnest and sincerely good. A lot of actors receive acclaim for loud performances, but Linklater's is self-effacing. Father Paul orates a riveting sermon and makes you understand how cults happen. When someone speaks well, saying what you want and need to hear, but also in the way you need to hear it, they possess an incredible power.
Midnight Mass has a brilliant plot that is entirely propelled by the characterization of these well-developed characters behaving in ways that are honest, logical courses of action they would follow. Flanagan created characters so absolute and so real that they could chart their own rivers of life. There’s an old and overused adage about good intentions paving the road to hell. These characters all mean well. Even in her own perverse way, Beverly Keane believes deeply that her actions are the right ones guided by her faith. It’s an astonishingly sensitive suggestion for the series to make with its characters. We don’t need a central villain. We’ll all destroy ourselves and each other in time.
A lot of horror media is centered on the theme of hatred. Violence that comes as a result of hatred, fear as the result of hatred, hatred of the other and hatred of the unknown. Midnight Mass is centers on the theme of love. Every action taken is with love, Beverley Keane's actions aside. Filial love between fathers and sons, romantic love, between old and new partners, and divine love, from a people to their god. When things go, inevitably and gloriously to hell, it is not with malice or any ill-intent. It is because humanity is fallible and foolish. While we often have good intensions, we frequently execute things poorly.
In anyone else’s hands this might be cynical, but Flanagan loves his characters so deeply and is so certain of their inherent goodness, that when the foundation of Crockett Island begins to crack, Flanagan, like Mr. Rogers before him, looks to the helpers. Instead of focusing on the ugliness, he points the lens towards the sacrifices and acts of kindness in the face of certain doom. Against all odds, there is a vein of optimism and hope running hot through Midnight Mass.
This is a story about the apocalypse. The idea of armageddon is so huge, so unfathomable, that most stories focus on the after-effects. In the series, Crockett Island is a representation of the world. Flanagan systematically and strategically cuts it off from the rest of civilization, and it is so expertly woven into the fabric of the narrative, we don’t actively realize the isolation is occurring. In the end, nearly every member of the community we've spent seven episodes being welcomed into is dead. The entire world has been wiped out and it matters. We actually feel it, because the world has been scaled down to a personal and manageable size.
The sun rises on Crockett Island and with it, the dawn turns its residents to dust, flashing brightly like a nuclear blast. It is here that Flanagan delivers his sharpest punch to the gut and it isn’t one of cruelty or bitterness. The island's residents stand together in the town square, knowing there is no possible reprieve from their fate and as Father Paul said in one of his earliest sermons, in the dark, they sing. Standing together, singing “Nearer my God to Thee,” they face their ends with grace and dignity. On a beach, Hassan and his son Ali (Rahul Abburi) pray together one last time. The various couples share a final kiss. This end, this deeply unsettling end to the series suggests that humanity can rise back up to its supreme purpose and love, even after unspeakable ugliness ravages it, even facing our inevitable end, as we all must.
Midnight Mass contains multitudes and deeply rewards re-watches. Knowing what’s coming in no way ruins the experience. Instead, it allows viewers to marvel at how carefully every brick is laid. It took Flanagan years and multiple iterations of the concept, but the wait was worth it. The series is a masterpiece.
All seven episodes of Midnight Mass are currently streaming on Netflix.