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Review

Netflix’s MIDNIGHT MASS (2021) Review

J-L reviews Mike Flanagan’s MIDNIGHT MASS saying the series “ultimately stands as a deeply personal” story for the creator.

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Midnight Mass (Netflix)

Midnight Mass starts streaming on Netflix on September 24th.

Review

From horror auteur Mike Flanagan comes his latest outing in the genre, MIdnight Mass. Having received critical acclaim for his previous literary adaptations for Netflix The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, Flanagan returns to the streaming service with a wholly original story that takes us to Crockett Island – a small, sleepy and isolated island community, where existing divisions are heightened following the return home of disgraced Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) and the arrival of charismatic priest Father Paul (Hamish Linklater).

The series of inexplicable, seemingly miraculous events that follows results in the reinvigoration of religious sentiment amongst the island’s citizens with sinister consequences. Flanagan has extensively described how infinitely more personal this series is to him. Like Riley, he was an altar boy who would go on to battle with sobriety in his adult life.

Michael Fimognari, the DP for Hill House and many of Flanagan’s feature films, makes a comeback after James Kniest took on Bly Manor and offers unquestionably gorgeous cinematography plus some inventive and engaging camera techniques. Impressive techniques such as vast aerial coverage and split diopter shots are utilised to great effect, while the disconnect that Riley feels from religion following his time in prison is captured through the flouting of typical conversational framing with regards to negative space – a move that echoes another show with a God-loathing protagonist, Mr. Robot.

Flanagan also reunites with composers The Newton Brothers with whom he has collaborated on almost all of his projects. Here, they produce a score perfectly befitting of the established tone of the series. The most memorable recurring musical pieces each encapsulate and enact a different mood, whether it be a sense of yearning, a moment of tension or unnerving discomfort.

Indeed, Flanagan has a tendency to work with recurring cast and crew alike, and Midnight Mass is no exception. With various actors consistently returning from his previous projects, there comes naturally the potential risk of the viewer seeing through their performances. Thankfully then, these actors are chameleons and Flanagan directs them in such a way that they become totally different people in each instance.

However, amongst the strong ensemble, it is a newcomer who is without doubt the standout. Having not worked with Flanagan prior, Linklater turns in a brilliant performance that steals the show, perfectly portraying Father Paul’s friendly and outgoing semblance matched with a deeply unsettling quality. His rousing sermons throughout the series strike up a fervour not only amongst the other characters, but also within the viewer too.

Another of the strongest performances comes from Samantha Sloyan, who despite not being religious herself, is utterly convincing in her portrayal of ardent community Christian Beverly Keane. Her initially unnerving innocence and feigned ignorance are matched with a frightening conviction and grandeur that mark her as another memorable Flanagan character and one that audiences will invariably love to hate.

Various aspects come together to create an intimate environment full of fully formed characters. For instance, some excellent production design really helps create Crockett Island. Yet whilst confined in scale by its island environment, Midnight Mass is ambitious in its scope and it generally succeeds in painting a multifaceted and intersectional portrait of life, society and their respective problems. It has a lot to say about contemporary issues and universal themes, both in action and in word, such as faith and fanaticism, religion and science, life and death. It plays on the human fear of death and the unknown, tackling challenging topics such as addiction and alcoholism along the way.

The show is unfortunately far from flawless though, not just because it feels like it is trying to tackle too many issues. The editing at times seems erratic and unnecessarily overdone with too many cuts and short takes. This is largely limited to the opening couple of episodes and generally only in conversation scenes, with grating cuts used to change angles on the same actor whenever they make a head movement, but nonetheless felt frustrating and at times downright distracting. Such overediting felt particularly sour given how the series continuously takes advantage of its cast’s abilities with immersive, unbroken long takes of monologue or conversation.

As a whole, Midnight Mass is more horrifying than full of horror, working better as a human drama with truly terrifying moments few and far between.

Sometimes, it is difficult to keep track of who is privy to what and some character (in)actions and developments are slightly frustrating, undermining the good work that came before. This is not just in the typical vein of horror critique, as in “that is stupid. why would you (not) do that?”, but because good character work is undone with actions that feel out of established character. Certain contrivances feel inexcusable, such as characters withholding knowledge or information for seemingly no reason at all; rather than things happening merely to force progression, instead much actually hinders the plot.

One of the most engaging parts of watching The Haunting anthologies was the allure of their mysteries, the arduous attempt to put together all the pieces of the puzzle. However, once a certain reveal happens in Midnight Mass, it seems fairly obvious where the story is headed. It is this sense of inevitability, accompanied by the relative lack of genuine twists and turns, that unravels the cleverfully woven tension and intrigue. There are no real surprises and those that do exist are largely immaterial. Certain plot points feel painfully predictable based on prior clues, whilst others are only subtly telegraphed before being answered cleverly in retrospect, making it hard to determine what is supposed to be apparent and what is not, and thus hard to determine whether this is brilliant or sloppy writing.

Episode to episode can feel like mundane repetition, which of course works in the sense of the established community of the sleepy island with little going on, but the lack of intrigue damages the experience. Such repetition is not exhibited in the characters’ actions, but also in their conversation; whilst the narrative builds to somewhat of a crescendo, certain characters start to sound like broken records. This represents an issue with taking such a meditative, slow burn approach. Whilst some fans may be disappointed in or even concerned about the relatively short episode count, it arguably is actually overlong. Regardless, it is likely no coincidence that a story steeped in religious lore spans seven instalments.

A mini series (compared to a feature film) affords the ability to dig deep into the world and its inhabitants, but there exists abundant repetition and little action. Much of the one-to-one dialogue felt like the existential rambling of the director through the mouthpiece of his characters and, even then, much of this we have already heard elsewhere, leaving us desensitised and unmoved.

Whilst capitalising on the rampant existentialism and nihilism of the contemporary collective conscience, the attempt often resorts to simply regurgitating the thoughts of that sentiment. Therefore, in spite of some deep, thought-provoking exchanges featuring fleeting glimpses of truly profound commentary, unfortunately some of the show’s dialogue feels preechier than its sermons!

Verdict

A competently assembled series, Midnight Mass ultimately stands as a deeply personal but by no means perfect piece of media. Perhaps acknowledging and appreciating what Flanagan’s latest work is – and, perhaps more significantly, is not – will enable a greater appreciation on a rewatch.


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