There’s something familiar about Crocket Island, both for myself and the average viewer. For the latter, it is that indelible image of the small American town, the tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone, and everyone puts up with everyone else’s idiosyncrasies because of that feeling of community. For the former, for me, it reminds me of home. I grew up in a small town on an island in the pacific northwest. Not as small as the Crock Pot, as it’s affectionately referred to, but much of the feeling of that small town reminds me very much of what it’s like to live in a small place –and to feel trapped there.
This is the tone struck by the setting of Midnight Mass, the new horror limited series from director Mike Flanagan. The tiny, dying island community withering away year after year. Once a community of hundreds, now reduced to dozens, the people who remain are there either by loyalty, fear, circumstance or some combination of the three. It’s a place where time seems to have stopped, where every kid has a smartphone, but every living room has a tube TV with rabbit ears, a place where change comes either very slowly or –with the right catalyst– very quickly.
At the outset of the story, two new residents arrive on the island: the prodigal son of a longtime island family returning home in disgrace after a stint in prison and a charismatic young priest. Following their arrival, things start to change very quickly for the residents. Miraculous things begin to happen, and a revival of religious faith takes place. But, of course, these miracles come with a price, and by the time Midnight Mass reveals what that price is, it will have taken you on a journey exploring family, faith, doubt, loss, and the great lengths those things will make us go to.
With just seven episodes telling a complete story, Flanagan strikes a balance with Midnight Mass that so many other series miss: it tells a complete story over all seven episodes while each individual episode maintains its own distinct structure and arc. Each episode provides new context and revelations to the overall story, but none feels like filler, and none feels like they are missing any pieces. It seems strange to highlight this basic structure of episodic storytelling, but in a world where series –especially those from Netflix– often feel like the number of episodes was determined before the creators knew how long or even what kind of story they wanted to tell, it feels noteworthy that Midnight Mass feels like it is exactly the length it needs to be.
One also gets the sense that Flanagan must be a wonderful collaborator, as so many actors keep returning to work with him. Zach Gilford and Hamish Linklater playing Riley Flynn and Father Paul, the returning scion and new priest respectively, are newcomers to the troupe (though Gilford will appear in Flanagans next project, too), but there will be many familiar faces for those of you who have watched his work before. Kate Siegel appears as Kate, a pregnant woman how has a history with Riley. In addition, Annabeth Gish is on hand as Sarah, the local doctor, Samantha Sloyan as Bev, the devout Catholic, Henry Thomas as Riley’s father Ed, Rahul Kohli as the local sheriff, and Robert Longstreet as Joe, the local drunk.
Every performance is great in its own way, and each is deeply human. Each character feels like a real person, right down to the little details. Riley’s mother Annie –played by local actress Kristin Lehman– brings several mannerisms to her performance that reminds me of every aunt I have ever had, in a way that feels authentic, for example. Similarly, Henry Thomas, as the stoic father, has some great moments early on just reacting to his family talking around the dinner table. Longstreet, the kind of character actor who can sink into a role, is excellent as the local drunk and sad-sack, revelling in his own self-loathing in a way that feels true.
Similarly, Rahul Kohli brings a tangible resignation and an undercurrent of resentment to his performance as Sherriff Hassan, a Muslim man who moved to the small community to escape the prejudice and of the big city, only to encounter more pervasive, if also more casual, bigotry from the small-town locals.
Samantha Sloyan is similarly excellent as the devout and pious Bev Keane, the woman in the town whose Christianity is her defining feature. Still, she is that person in the small town that every small town has: the holier than thou, the judgemental, and the ultimately selfish, and her performance will likely garner her award nominations next year.
Much of the praise, though, will land with the three lead characters of the series. Gilford, Linklater, and Siegel each create compelling characters, and each of them is excellent. Linklater has an innocence about him as Father Paul that makes every one of his interactions interesting, albeit for different reasons as the show goes on. Gilford is heartbreaking as Riley, who spent four years in prison for killing a woman while driving drunk, now feels lost in his own existence, while Siegel plays his opposite, a person who left the town but is back to live her life rather than hide from it. Gilford has several scenes with each of them where they discuss life, death, loss, faith, and everything in between, and each of these scenes is emotionally impactful; some happy, some sad, and some that will leave you devastated.
And that is where Mike Flanagan shines. As a filmmaker and storyteller, he has developed a sense of where to pull his punches and exactly where to hit you will the full force of what you’re watching. He knows how to tease you with small scares, well-built tension, and an existential sense of dread and how to have those things pay off later in each episode and the rest of the series in a way that I find incredibly impactful. Additionally, he continues evolving technically; those of you who remember and love the single-take scenes in The Haunting of Hill House will be very happy with Midnight Mass, which has multiple incredible long takes before the end of episode two.
These two things –his understanding of the emotionality of the story he is telling and his technical acumen– come together because he knows exactly how to tell the story he wants to tell, and with that comes emotional impact. He knows exactly how long the story needs to be and is very deliberate with pace and tone, so by the time you realize what kind of story is being told and who or what the heroes and villains are, you’re completely invested in their characters and their story.
Midnight Mass has its share of scares as a horror story, but as a story about loss and faith, it explores things much deeper. Of the seven episodes, no fewer than three left me in tears, and all seven will give you much to think about when it comes to your own faith or beliefs and what kind of person you want to be.
Midnight Mass will premiere on Netflix this Friday, Sept 24th 2021, and will be discussed in-depth on the Awesome Friday Podcast episode premiering on Sept 26th.
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