Midnight Mass

Midnight Mass

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised at Mike Flanagan's ambition increasing with each project. After turning Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House into a sprawling, inventive cumulation of themes in his prior works, and then trying his hand at Stephen King's The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep (which, hey, good effort, even if no one asked for it), Flanagan returns with Midnight Mass.

Set almost entirely on a small island, the miniseries is about as sparse as its locale; the structural gambits and stylistic tricks of Hill House or Oculus are nowhere to be found here, because this is a story containing big ideas like faith and mortality, and that's where the focus needs to be.

There are some narrative hooks designed to draw people in. There's the return of the town's prodigal son, just getting out of jail after killing a woman while drunk driving; the arrival of a new, mysterious priest who can perform miracles; older churchgoers somehow de-aging not too long after the new priest shows up; and some sort of winged creature feasting on any person or animal it can find.

Most of these mysteries get resolved before Midnight Mass hits the halfway mark. The priest is the town's former, elderly priest, now much younger as a result of getting attacked by the winged creature which turns out to be a vampire. He thinks the vampire is an angel, and soon the church's more devout parishioners become true, unhinged believers.

With the setup out of the way, Flanagan finally gets to what he really wants to talk about: the inherent trust that comes with faith, and how the pursuit of validating one's beliefs can lead to outright destruction. The aforementioned prodigal son represents the faithless, the priest represents the faithful, and a pregnant woman in town (played by Flanagan's wife Kate Siegel) represents the ideal middle ground.

The problem is how Flanagan chooses to explore these ideas, which is largely through a lot of talking. His penchant for monologues led to some of the worst moments of Hill House, and for some reason he feels like this is the thing he needs to double down on. Most scenes are structured to allow as much speechifying as possible, whether it's sermons, AA meetings, or conversations that deal with heavy subject matter (the worst case: two people asking what happens after death, with each of them providing a 3-4 minute answer). At a certain point I dreaded any time someone asked a question, because the answer would be about as long as your average pop song.

Flanagan has always been great at showing, so I'm not sure why he's so inclined to tell as much as possible here. He just doesn't have the chops for this, and even as a long-time fan of his I can't defend this as an admirable miss. The writing is on par with something out of a college's theatre program, making sure to give each student a few moments to really flex their acting muscles. Substance-wise, everyone talks in circles: faith vs science, belief vs skepticism, forgiveness vs punishment, all just verbose ways of beating the same old drum.

It's plenty obvious by the end that Midnight Mass' story of a small town dividing and annihilating itself over fanaticism is a parable for our own ideological battles over bigger questions. But Flanagan tends to do better when letting viewers extrapolate. Oculus, which took place primarily in a bland suburban home, used its villain's powers of perception to show the destructive and cyclical nature of trauma. Absentia took the fear of moving on from the past and spun it into a Lovecraftian worst case scenario. And Hill House worked best in its two episodes at the halfway point, a self-contained ghost story and a series of long takes at a funeral home, which found ways to go big within its own storytelling constraints. Midnight Mass doesn't have much restraint to it, with opportunity as far and wide as the ocean surrounding the series' island setting. So it's more than a little disappointing to see Flanagan choose to drown himself.