Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass opens on an incredibly recognizable symbol, one where two arcs intersect and curve into a basic rendering of fish. The symbol is easy to recognize, yet steeped in complex meaning when it comes to the world of the Catholic church.
These opening moments yanked me back a decade or so, to a time where Sundays smelled like incense and old Bible pages; where images of that fish, and of Jesus dying on the cross, were etched into my psyche. I was lucky enough to escape Catholicism at a young age, but not before its signature guilt wrapped into tentacles around my heart. I hadn’t thought about that guilt in a long time. That is, until I saw that damn fish on the screen.
As the camera’s lens widens, we see that the fish is a bumper sticker on a car that has been involved in a deadly accident. Police lights flash and reflect off the glass littering the ground, creating the world’s most tragic disco ball. Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) sits on the curb while a young woman lays on the pavement, breathing her last breath after he drunkenly hit her car. As punishment for his sins, Riley is sentenced to four years in prison.
Flash forward four years and Riley has been released from prison. He hops on a ferry and heads home to the tiny community of Crockett Island. Here, a population of less than 200 lives in isolation. They fish, attend church, and try to protect their hearts from personal traumas. As Riley settles in back home with his mom Annie (Kristin Lehman), dad Ed (Henry Thomas), and young brother Warren (Igby Rigney), he reconnects with childhood flame Erin Greene (Kate Siegel). He is hesitant to enter the world, still traumatized and wracked with guilt over his past actions.
Meanwhile, a mysterious new priest comes to town, a one Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), sent to replace the ailing monsignor. He’s young, compassionate, and strikes up a friendship with Riley. He even starts an AA chapter so Riley can more easily attend meetings. They sit across from one another, debating about God, and what it means to simply exist. As Father Paul’s connection with the community begins to blossom, miracles start to occur. A young girl who uses a wheelchair due to a spinal injury gains the ability to walk again. An ailing older woman with dementia begins to regain her memories. Something special seems to be happening on Crockett Island. But they’ll soon come to find out the deadly consequences of such miracles.
Midnight Mass has an incredible cast playing the eclectic members of the Crockett Island community. Leading the charge is Samantha Sloyan as Bev Keane, the town’s local religious zealot who oozes religious hypocrisy out of her pores. Sloyan plays her to evil perfection, making her one of the most despicable characters I’ve seen since Marcia Gay Harden’s Mrs. Carmody in The Mist. Her cold delivery, sharp stare, and religious conviction make her scarier than any monster.
Conversely, Lehman—as Riley’s mother, Annie—is a warm hug, the kind of Christian that church-going people aspire to be. While she starts the series as a seemingly naive mom, Lehman digs deeper into a character who could have quickly become two-dimensional. Instead, she is a deeply anxious person who refuses to accept the tragedies that befall her family. And despite it all, she still emanates a warmth that can calm you no matter how dire the situation.
But Linklater truly steals Midnight Mass as a priest who knows how to grab the hearts of his clergy. He can be as meek as a lamb or as cruel as a lion, depending on the needs of his flock. Linklater is shouldered with quite a few lengthy monologues that, while repetitive in content, are never boring in performance. That charisma is chilling as he sneaks his way into the hearts of the community. There are even moments where you want to believe he’s truly good. But, it’s never that easy in horror, and twitches of the eyes or strange glances snap you back to reality. There is something deeply wrong with this man.
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As can be expected from a Flanagan joint, your heart is going to break and you are going to cry. No one unites horror and raw emotion quite like him, and Midnight Mass is no exception. Flanagan pours himself into this project as he draws inspiration from his own struggles with alcoholism. Gilford is Flanagan’s proxy, playing Riley as a man haunted by the ghosts of his past. His eyes are always full of sorrow, guilt, and apologies that he desperately wishes he could deliver. His physicality is that of a terrified animal backed into a corner.
But, as he finds empathy in both Erin and Father Paul, his body language changes and a warmth creeps into his eyes. Gilford plays this man who has so quickly and harshly fallen from grace as an empathetic character that doesn’t need to be forgiven; he just needs to be understood.
Forgiveness is a big word in the Catholic faith. We’re constantly asked to beg for forgiveness or deliver forgiveness onto those who have wronged us. But the word is thrown around so much in the homily that it loses all meaning. In Midnight Mass, Flanagan redefines what it means to find and ask for forgiveness. It is not performative or full of desperation. Instead, it is merely a plea to be seen, to be heard, and to be understood. And it may not come with a happy ending or a promise of salvation. But at least it’s honest.
Flanagan deftly weaves through meditations of guilt, addiction, sorrow, desperation, and love in just seven episodes, all while delivering gory kills and scream-worthy moments. Despite the excess of crucifixes and Catholic iconography in the genre, here religious imagery is used to a surprisingly unique effect, including a moment in episode six involving a packed church.
But Flanagan isn’t completely successful in balancing the existential and the horrific.
Just as Midnight Mass tries to criticize the didactic musings of the Catholic Church, he himself stumbles into those waters through exceptionally long monologues in every episode. There’s no doubting they are beautifully written and performed. Siegel delivers an especially heart-breaking soliloquy in episode four about death and motherhood that had tears dripping off my chin. Flanagan is a master of tapping into the core of the human emotional experience and his writing consistently reflects that. However, there are so many of those monologues that they begin to hinder the show’s pacing and get in the way of its horrific elements. The speeches about religious belief are particularly exhausting as every character waxes poetic about their own relationships, or lack thereof, with God.
Midnight Mass is beautiful. Yes, it’s long-winded and perhaps one of Flanagan’s meaner works. But it’s also deeply thoughtful about what it means to struggle with faith. It treads a familiar path to previous religious horror films, but it sets itself apart in a shocking back half that refuses to pull any punches. It’s an incredibly complex series that, in just seven episodes, creates a fascinating web of characters, personalities, and relationships that make you feel like you’re part of this tiny community. So pack those tissues and hope on the ferry, because it’s time to head to Crockett Island.
Midnight Mass premiered on Netflix September 24, 2021.
With ‘Midnight Mass,’ director Mike Flanagan further proves he is a master of emotional horror with a gory, heartwrenching tale about redemption, despite too many monologues that distract from the show’s overall terror.