Two men—a priest and a recovering alcoholic— sit in a church rec center on folding chairs discussing the nature of God and the paradox of evil. It could be a scene out of Dostoevsky, but it’s a centerpiece of the Netflix limited series, Midnight Mass, an arrestingly strange and deeply affecting exploration of faith, sin, guilt, addiction, and grief.
It’s a passion project for writer/director, Mike Flanagan, a highly-regarded horror auteur known for hit Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House. Horror, for Flanagan, is a genre suited to themes of guilt and sin, faith and free will, buried secrets and unprocessed traumas. The seven episodes of Midnight Mass, which unfurl at a deliberate, even meditative pace, feel personal and urgent, hitting familiar genre beats while surprising with nuanced performances and searching, philosophical themes.
A Specter Haunts…
The series opens with what Flanagan, himself a recovering alcoholic, has admitted was his greatest fear: killing someone while driving drunk. The guilt gnaws at protagonist, Riley Flynn (sad-eyed and soft-spoken Zach Gilford), who returns home after a spell in prison to Crockett Island, a remote fishing village (population: 127) only accessible by ferry. In the wake of an oil spill, the place is dead economically and spiritually. The arrival of a young, charismatic priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), galvanizes the community and the faithful at St. Patrick’s Catholic church, the island’s social and spiritual epicenter.
With Fr. Paul’s arrival, Crockett Island comes to life—the pews begin to fill and before long the dynamic priest even seems able to work miracles: the old are recovering their youth and a disabled woman rises from her wheelchair. But are these miracles divine or demonic? Flynn, a former altar boy who lost his faith after the accident, considers the new priest with suspicion, even as miraculous events multiply. A specter haunts the island — a winged creature with a thirst for blood…
Catholicism is incarnational: the whole premise is that the Word is made Flesh, God becomes human to suffer with and alongside his creation. Every mass finds the priest transubstantiating bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, to be consumed by the faithful. This clearly inflamed young Flanagan’s gothic imagination, and there has been some chatter about whether the series is “anti-Catholic.” This is surprising: Midnight Mass is arguably the most Catholic piece of popular culture in recent memory. It is steeped in the rituals, the hymns, teachings, complexities, and controversies of the oldest continuous institution in human history.
Key to this complexity is Hamish Linklater’s powerful, hypnotic performance as Fr. Paul: his line deliveries are halting and syncopated, conveying the sense of a character passionate and generous, wry and thoughtful, but prey to delusions of grandeur. While Linklater captures the unquestionable appeal and magnetism of a priest aflame with conviction and fervor, Fr. Paul also embodies the “cult of the priest” that has made corruption endemic in the Church. Beverly Keane (Samantha Sloyan) is the spinsterish parish lady for whom the priest can do no wrong — she is full of outward piety and inward ruthlessness, and all too willing to separate the wheat from the chaff. Rahul Kohli plays the sympathetic town sheriff, a Muslim held in suspicion by the town’s predominantly white Catholics.
The series pauses for extended theological excurses. In one moving scene Riley and his childhood sweetheart, Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), exchange their visions of the afterlife. Riley’s is materialist, but moving: as the body dies it releases a final rush of dopamine that sends one into the ether on an ecstatic wave of ecstasy to rival the wildest psychedelic trip. For Erin, Heaven simply means “You are loved. And you aren’t alone.” Riley responds with desolating sincerity: “I really hope you’re right.”
Although Flanagan’s imaginative sympathy extends to all his characters (even the self-righteous Beverly), Flynn is clearly Flanagan’s stand-in. A cradle Catholic and erstwhile altar boy, Flanagan digs deep with Midnight Mass to turn the tropes of horror to searching, slanting account. The slow-burn approach feels soulful and generous, strange and sincere. For all its genre tropes and conventions, it lands with the unexpected power of a real work of art, the product of a singular vision: haunting and humane.