Mike Flanagan continues an impressive run in a new Netflix miniseries about a dying town forced to worship at the altar of death and unquestioning belief.
We make flippant remarks about this being the “darkest timeline,” but it really does seem like we’re existing in an insurmountably bleak period, with no end in sight (not any kind of end we want, at least). What we thought we could rely on–that our neighbors would work together to keep each other safe–turned out to be wrong, and faith and a reliance on God’s will is hard to come by. If anything, God seems to have checked out, maybe tired of the whole “I need this and this, amen” deal, and left his most wonderful creations to fend for themselves.
On the upside, this mass crisis of faith, which has resulted in the lowest Christian church attendance in years, has also inspired some excellent, thoughtful and often deeply unsettling media, including First Reformed, Saint Maud, and The Vigil. Add to that Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass, a Netflix miniseries that, in what’s become a Flanagan trademark, leaves the viewer both chilled and heartbroken. It’s both his most personal work, and one that will cut deeply those who’ve struggled with the role of religion in their lives.
Midnight Mass opens with Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), fresh out of prison after serving time for killing a teenage girl in a drunk driving accident. With no job prospects and nowhere else to go, Riley returns to where he grew up, tiny Crockett Island, the kind of Stephen King-esque drab little town where it always looks like it’s about to rain, and the houses all exist in some bleak, dimly lit 70s thrift store netherworld. It’s not just the town itself that seems to be trapped in amber, but the people, who spend far more time talking about the past than living in the present. It’s understandable, because there isn’t much of a “present.”
Riley’s not exactly welcomed back with open arms, with a father (Henry Thomas) who can barely make eye contact with him, and neighbors who treat him with chilly politeness at best. The only people who seem happy to see him are his overly cheerful mother (Kristin Lehman), and his childhood sweetheart, Erin (Kate Siegel), and even she’s a bit of a pariah, also recently returned to the island after a failed marriage and with a baby on the way.
Virtually all the social life on Crockett Island is centered around its only church, St. Patrick’s, overseen by the ancient Monsignor Pruitt, and his loathsome second-in-command, Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan). When Monsignor Pruitt falls ill on a trip to the Holy Land and is temporarily replaced by the younger Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), it’s the most exciting thing to happen to the town in years. Father Paul is a dynamic, passionate speaker, offering messages of hope and rebirth, something the people of Crockett Island clearly haven’t heard in a long time.
They aren’t sure what to make of Father Paul himself, however, not until he miraculously heals the Mayor’s daughter, Leeza (Annarah Cymone), confined to a wheelchair after she was accidentally shot. Miracles abound after that, with bad backs mysteriously better, vision improved, and minds clouded by dementia made clear again. Hope has returned to the dying little town, thanks solely to the arrival of Father Paul. Even the non-believer Riley softens a bit, when Father Paul offers to counsel him in the 12 step program and seems to understand him in a way few other people do.
But where did Father Paul come from? Well, no one really seems to know, and after a while, no one really cares.
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: if Mike Flanagan’s approach to slowly, methodically creating a vivid setting and developing his substantial cast of characters turned you off to The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, I regret to inform you that you will not likely enjoy Midnight Mass. If anything, it’s even slower paced than its predecessors, unfolding like a novel and giving the major players their own backstories, whether they ultimately connect to the central plot or not. It’s not until more than halfway through the series that things really start cooking, and even then the moments of flat-out, traditional horror are intercut with long monologues about faith, what we need to get us through our darkest moments, and what happens when we die. It’s not a fun or easy watch, but it’s startlingly insightful and deeply moving.
Churches draw in the lonely, the broken, and those who need answers for why there’s so much suffering in the world, where we know in our hearts there aren’t any. Those are God’s chosen ones, unfortunately too often overruled by those who judge and treat faith as a competition. Flanagan, who clearly is working some stuff out about his feelings toward the (presumably) Catholic Church, casts a critical eye on the hypocrisy of “good” Christians who preach God’s love and attend potluck dinners, but also keep the Muslim sheriff (Rahul Kohli) at a cool arm’s length, while methodically working to convert his teenage son. What the parishioners of St. Patrick’s do to prove their faith and devotion to the church quickly goes from baffling to horrifying, but…just look around you. Beyond the horror movie twist, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.
Flanagan is an actor’s director, and he gets career-best performances out of Gilford, Siegel and Kohli. Samantha Sloyan, playing a signature Stephen King evil church lady, has a lethal combination of smugness and malice all but oozing from her pores. But it’s Hamish Linklater who dominates the entire series as Father Paul. If you watched the criminally underrated Legion, you’ll know that Linklater plays “quietly sinister” like no one’s business, and he ramps it up to marvelous effect here, relying on a disarmingly soothing baritone voice and an often unreadable expression in his eyes to chilling, fascinating effect. What makes Father Paul a more compelling character is that it’s unclear how the audience is supposed to feel about him. He seems to have genuinely good intentions when he comes to Crockett Island, but of course, we know what they say about good intentions.
There are few stumbles in Midnight Mass, save for the fact that, even with “old” makeup, Henry Thomas is distractingly too young to be playing Zach Gilford’s father. It’s such a minor thing in an otherwise impeccable series that it almost seems petty to point it out, and it’s more than balanced by a number of moments that are beautiful, or haunting, or sometimes both. It’s unclear if organized religion will continue to have much place in the world (or what’s left of it) going forward, but faith will always exist. Faith that the sun will rise the next day. Faith in science. Faith that we will live on, stardust and ash, no favorites, on equal ground, forever.
Midnight Mass premieres on Netflix September 24th.