Around the midpoint of Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix horror serial “Midnight Mass,” in the middle of a conversation about loss, Kate Siegel’s character Erin asks Zach Gilford’s Riley: “What happens when you die?”
Humanity’s been grappling with with that big question for millennia, and a single conversation likely won’t crack it. But Riley tries, delivering a monologue about the body’s atoms “scattered across the goddamn cosmos” and becoming one with everything, his speech underscored by plaintive piano.
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The character is reaching beyond his grasp in order to deliver emotional catharsis and meandering into well-meant cliché. So, too, is the show. Flanagan’s third limited series for Netflix, taking Catholicism as its subject, lacks the crispness and rigor that has often distinguished his work. And though it engages with potent ideas, the ultimate impact of “Midnight Mass” is softened by a lack of follow-through. It’s a very talky show that struggles, in dialogue, to answer the questions it poses.
Riley and Erin are among the few residents of Crockett Island, a place known for its fishing industry, a recent catastrophe that wiped much of that industry out, and a deep and abiding faith, nourished by the parish’s beloved monsignor. When that leader disappears, a new priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater, a standout in a strong cast) shows up and wins the community’s love. His is a muscular belief, expressing itself in exhortations from the pulpit and, soon enough, in miracles restoring the health of various townspeople. A local physician (Annabeth Gish) seeks to investigate the source of the father’s works — but as the town enters his thrall, she may be too late.
An abiding irony of “Midnight Mass” is that Riley, a skeptic about the church his family attends, could badly use a miracle of his own. He’s returned to the island where he grew up after years of mainland dissolution ended in prison time for manslaughter. He carries a torch for Erin but can’t seem to outrun his lack of self-respect. (Gilford, of “Friday Night Lights,” beautifully conjures a life lived in shame.) Unfortunately for Riley, who meets with the priest in private AA sessions that take on unexpected dimensions, Father Paul’s faith is more centered on the charisma of Father Paul than on any benevolent higher power. We see the ghoulish ways in which he lets his dogma out, building to a gory town-wide cataclysm. The grandeur of the Catholic Church — a priest’s glittering vestments and the dullness of ash, the ritual of Communion and its body-and-blood implications, the mystery of resurrection — provide a natural fit for Flanagan’s florid sensibility, and his keen eye.
The screenwriting is less solid than the direction, though, and “Midnight Mass” may lose your attention between moments of dazzle. It’s likely that there’s a solid feature film within the project, but seven episodes, six over an hour long, represent a commitment for a story that’s fairly simple, and embroidered with philosophical questions unanswerable at any length. Flanagan stretches out: The town sheriff (Rahul Kohli), late in the series, delivers a monologue explaining why he came to Crockett Island after facing religious prejudice in policing. Kohli, a gifted past Flanagan collaborator (2020’s “The Haunting of Bly Manor”), can sell it, and it’s compelling in the moment. But for the benefit of the whole, these revelations would have more impact braided into the story — or left unstated.
Episodic TV, with its sprawl, tends to encourage the explanation of everything, an impulse that can cut against horror’s fundamentals. After all, enigma is what really frightens us. In the past, Flanagan’s tendency to probe every corner has worked well, as in 2018’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” in which family trauma builds symphonically over time. Here, the endgame feels cluttered, with character backstories jumbling up, standing in the way of metaphor, and of meaning.
And meaning is what Flanagan seeks; he’s not satisfied solely with freaking us out. “Midnight Mass” is, at its best, a work about religious faith that performs the act of grappling with that faith; the allure, and the danger, of Father Paul, as rendered by Linklater in an exceptional performance of self-belief covering for a fundamental brokenness, show us the pain of wanting to believe in something greater. But a leaner version of “Midnight Mass” — one that asked all the same questions but didn’t believe the answer could be found in stem-winding speeches — might satisfy in ways this one cannot.
Yet the flaws of the show make it Flanagan’s. Gifted with a strong visual sensibility and a questing curiosity, the writer-director has become a major voice in entertainment. While much of the series does not work, it does not work for reasons that one might elsewhere encourage: It relentlessly chews over ideas, piling on character and incident with glimmering ambition. It does not cohere. But a failure like this one may impress more than a success on more narrowly defined terms. At moments of pure terror or of character excavation, “Midnight Mass” soars to the heavens, or plunges into hell. That much of its running time can feel purgatorial doesn’t erase the best moments, or Flanagan’s promise.
“Midnight Mass” premieres Friday, Sept. 24, on Netflix.
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