Midnight Mass Review
If you haven’t noticed, there are few modern filmmakers with quite the output of Mike Flanagan in recent years; since 2016, he’s amassed nine writing/co-writing and directing credits. That amalgamation of original works and adaptations have saturated horror media culture with his stylistic choices – perhaps to a fault, given how familiar so much of last year’s The Haunting of Bly Manor felt. Midnight Mass – debuting its seven episode season Friday on Netflix – being the ninth amongst these works (his tenth, The Midnight Club, is already being filmed) seems fitting; as the divine number in this cycle of work, Midnight Mass is arguably Flanagan’s greatest work to date, a mosaic of his familiar themes elevated by an unbelievable harmony of performance and direction that’s easily among the best TV of 2021.
Set on an isolated fisherman’s island, Midnight Mass tells the story of Riley Flynn and the town of Crockett Island vaguely alluded to in Gerald’s Game and Hush (Midnight Mass is mentioned as a novel in both those films). As one might expect, a small fisherman’s town of devout Catholics is bound to be a strange, contradictory land of suffering and hope, especially when a series of events begins pushing its inhabitants uncomfortably closer to each other’s greatest regrets and darkest memories. Structurally, it is exactly what one would expect from some of Flanagan’s best work, a narrative contained to a confined space, offering density rather than expansiveness (*ahem* Doctor Sleep).
Those constraints work wonders for the ambitious, layered story of deep regrets and personal revelations in Midnight Mass – though with the shortest of the seven episodes clocking in at 64 minutes, that embrace of brevity doesn’t extend beyond the show’s setting (it occasionally leads to overstuffed moments, though far fewer than we saw with, say, the felon ghost bullshit of Bly Manor). As is often the case in Flanagan’s authored works, Midnight Mass is extraordinarily wordy and languishly paced; which means when it’s time for shit to happen, it can get a bit tripped up lingering unnecessarily on its performers chewing dialogue, thus distracting itself from returning to The Point when it needs to.
Unlike Bly Manor, however, this is a feature, not a bug, of Midnight Mass; the first three episodes don’t quite feel this way while watching through them, but their extremely deliberate nature pays dividends as Midnight Mass begins to show its hand, and lean further and further into its dynamic performances and deeply unsettling imagery. What initially feels like obligatory worldbuilding in early hours blossoms into something much more emotional as Mass moves through its second act; especially as the series anchors itself to the performance of Hamish Linklater, who plays the town’s new pastor, Father Paul.
Father Paul, simply put, is a fascinating character, one that would be given to a hammy “Christian dude in a horror movie” performance in the wrong hands. As Paul, however, Linklater becomes the fulcrum for Midnight Mass‘s fascinating examination of Catholicism, a lightning bolt for the show’s depiction of Biblical beauty – and horror, of course, which Midnight Mass offers up in spades in its back half.
Without Linklater’s performance, however, much of what surrounds him on Crockett Island might feel perfunctory; but Flanagan and Linklater have tapped into something powerful, observing the admirable dedication and alluring seduction involved in being an impactful community leader. It helps bridge the gap between the traditional horror elements, and the more theocratic self-examination at the heart of Midnight Mass, grasping for answers at the grotesque challenge of life and the inherent suffering of just existing.
As one might expect, Crockett is not a safe haven from the normal traumas of life; as Midnight Mass moves towards its predictably gory, though completely unexpected climax, it never lets its focus shy away from its characters, separating itself from some of the more superficial horrors prevalent in the genre. Much of the horror in Midnight Mass is unseen, asking difficult questions about life, death, addiction, regret… the tonal shifts in Flanagan’s work is not always the most well-executed, but their cacophonic deployment in this series is impressive, as building blocks of both character and plot.
There are certainly moments where Midnight Mass is so enamored with itself, that it forgets to stick the landing; Sheriff Hassan’s (a wonderfully somber Rahul Kohli) reflections and presence are severely undercooked, an almost embarrassingly one-dimensional look at a crisis of faith in a Muslim family. And yes, it takes a long time to get to the seventh and final hour of Midnight Mass; but holy shit, is it a journey worth taking, full of layered, generational relationships, offering a deep, painful look into the scars a community holds the longer it stays together, and the lengths they’ll go to try and heal (or avoid) them. Through the filters of Catholic guilt and small-town regret, Flanagan’s long takes and (sometimes unnecessary) narrative density find a powerful voice, one the familiar stable of actors (boy, it must feel good to be attached to Flanagan’s train, rather than Ryan Murphy’s) is able to wring plenty of dramatic juice out of.
(Side note: that being said, Henry Thomas is mostly wasted for the second Netflanagan project in a row, which is kind of unforgivable).
By the time Midnight Mass rounds the disturbing corners to its climatic home stretch, though, it is firing on all cylinders in a way I wasn’t quite prepared for – when it kicks into high gear, it is equally devastating, beautiful – and as haunting as any horror work in recent memory. Episodes 4 and 5 alone would make my top 5 list of TV shows for 2021; the fact those two hours are surrounded by so much thematically rich material, easily makes Midnight Mass one of 2021’s must-watch series.
Midnight Mass asks a lot of its audience in its maddeningly patient opening hours, which are a little too long in the tooth for their own good (every episode could lose 5-10 minutes, if we’re being honest). Like the faith Midnight Mass explores in painstakingly honest detail, it requires a blind leap to embrace its conventions, its familiarity, and its many parallels to Flanagan’s earlier works. Trust me; it will be rewarded, in a cacophony of the horrible, wonderful glory promised in the many words of the scriptures its characters speak, consider, and desperately strive to embody.