Midnight Mass (2021) – A Profound Exploration Of Theism And Atheism By Mike Flanagan
Mike Flanagan has consistently explored the power of horror to understand the nuances of humanity. While many directors who started their careers with horror movies and shows have ventured down other routes, Flanagan has firmly set his foot in the genre and dug deeper into it. After showing a lot of promise with projects like Oculus and Hush, he has confidently knocked it out of the park with Gerald’s Game, The Haunting of Hill House, Doctor Sleep, and The Haunting of Bly Manor. And to nobody’s surprise, through Midnight Mass, Flanagan’s latest Netflix outing, he is here to show how much further he intends to go along with the horror genre.
A little disclaimer here. This is going to be an incredibly vague review because everything post the first episode of Midnight Mass is a massive spoiler. But since the show tackles a dicey topic such as religion, it will be best to go in without even a vague idea about the plot and make up your own mind. With that out of the way, here’s the summary. The story is set in Crockett Island, a place that has a net population of just over a hundred people and no other landmass for thirty miles in every direction. And while it is chock full of colorful characters, it’s Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), who is returning to Crockett after serving four years in jail for a drinking and driving case that led to a girl’s death, that best fits the role of the protagonist. Additionally, there’s Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) who is there to replace Monsignor Pruitt and is accompanied by a suspiciously large trunk. Sooner or later, horrifying and miraculous incidents start happening, thereby leading to a searing religious divide. Because whenever there’s something inexplicable, religion will find a way to control the narrative around it.
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Let’s deal with some of the technical aspects, first, and then come to the subjective areas of Midnight Mass. Without a shadow of a doubt, in terms of sheer scale and scope, this is the biggest project that Flanagan has worked on. From whatever information is out there on Wikipedia, the show was shot in Vancouver, Canada. But thanks to the staging, sound design, editing, Michael Fimognari’s cinematography, Steve Arnold’s production design, and Laurin Kelsey and Andrew Li’s art direction, there’s not a moment in the show where you won’t feel the claustrophobia of living in a water-locked mass of land. You will be able to smell the briny stench through the small screen, which will only amplify the heavy atmosphere created by the narrative (as well as the make-up and costume design). And on top of that, the VFX team, which includes Spin VFX, MAS FX, RISE Visual Effects Studios, GoldenSkyBirds, and Zoic Studios, will hit you with some truly magnificent aerial imagery, which is reminiscent of the out-of-body experiences in Doctor Sleep.
While it wasn’t apparent in Flanagan’s earlier works, post-Gerald’s Game, he has developed an aesthetic that gives off the feeling of watching a stage play. During the indoor shots, you get to see the floor like you usually see it on a stage i.e. slightly horizontal to your eye-line. Whereas in most movies and shows you can see the floor at a declined angle. Even when Flanagan, Arnold, and Fimognari aren’t doing that, they mix natural internal lighting and unmotivated external lighting to emulate the experience of watching a play. Since it’s not quite possible to do anything on that level unless you have the budget to create an entire island on an elevated platform, Flanagan does the next best thing: unbroken takes of people talking, which is something that happens, you guessed it, in a play. And they are acted, choreographed, and written so perfectly that you will not realize until the very last moment that there aren’t any cuts in that scene. But how does this supplement the narrative exactly? Is it all just a gimmick?
No, it’s not a gimmick and it adds to this voyeuristic and helpless vibe of the journeys that the characters of Midnight Mass are on. As mentioned before, it seems like Flanagan adopted this particular format of visual storytelling after Gerald’s Game. If you take a look at Hill House, Bly Manor, and Doctor Sleep, all of them have an element of being watched upon by a tangible or intangible entity that is very advertently crafting the fate of the characters. In the case of Midnight Mass, apart from the spoiler-y entity, the destinies of every single person on Crockett Island is defined by their religious beliefs. The theist or atheist figures are actual people here, yes. But religion itself looms large on these characters, like a puppet-master, pulling on the strings between the people and Crockett Island, regardless of whether they believe in it or not. And given how regressive and oppressive the whole concept of religion is, obviously it limits the arcs of these characters instead of freeing them (FYI, that’s the point of the whole story, this is not a criticism).
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Flanagan very boldly makes it a point to show that theists will pose as the rule-makers of morality and immorality. They will decide what is pious and what is not pious. They will cite religious scriptures and historical incidents. They will walk with an air of self-righteousness and decide if you are worthy of being included in society (which should ideally be governed by the law of the land and not by a certain religion) or ostracized. Heck, they will decide whether you deserve to live or die. However (and this is a big ‘however’), when these upholders of religion and that religion itself have to match up to the standards they have been preaching to everyone and anyone, they will begin to (mis)interpret the religious scriptures in a way that will benefit them. They will gaslight. They will justify violence, murder, lynchings, and every kind of unlawful act that you can possibly imagine. And they will lie. Why? Because they are literally incapable of having an identity of their own and accepting simple stuff like mortality. Hence, they will hide behind the wall of religion, because it is a widely accepted concept despite its vagueness, and continue to divide and rule, with ruling being the #1 priority here.
What the hell is wrong with mortality? The finiteness of it makes life all the more meaningful. Life is finite and hence we should learn to co-exist and help each other to be the best versions of ourselves. But no. We have spent generations after generations dividing ourselves into religious factions, class, caste, and more such arbitrary borders. Who is that benefiting? A select few. Yet, how many are choosing to fight for more division? Millions. To what end? So that you can feel powerful? So that you can have some kind of higher ground? So that you can play God because you know full well that there’s nothing called God? And learning about science involves too much reading? Well, your loss. Because in a beautifully scripted scene, Flanagan talks about the infiniteness of the cosmos, the limited nature of life, how we are connected to space via atoms, and how that is godlier than any definition of God there is. And the sooner we accept it, the sooner we can start evolving as a society instead of devolving as a species. However, according to theists (Christians, to be specific because they are in the hot seat in Midnight Mass), that makes them like everyone else.
Through a lot of characters, but especially through Bev Keane (played by Samantha Sloyan, who will redefine the concept of not just hating religion and religious fanatics, but also urge you to Google ways on how to kill a fictional character while respecting the actor’s performance), Flanagan shows that the biggest problem with theists is that they just cannot accept being like everyone else i.e. human. Because being human means being flawed and that’s just unacceptable for them. That’s where the rituals to absolve a person of their sins and notions of being “pure” or going to Hell come from. They will go out of their way to talk about resurrection and whatnot. But holding themselves accountable for their past actions and making amends in the one life they have and growing as a human being? Impossible. Everyone has to be the chosen one. An apostle of God. A messiah. Something special. Which is totally fine to expect from oneself. But to be that, you have to face who you are, realize the limitations, and most importantly, identify the villain that you are dealing with (which is rarely a person whose ideals seem disagreeable to you).
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Now, this is where Midnight Mass hits on a personal level. It’s a topic that Flanagan has explored previously in Oculus, Hill House, Bly Manor, and Doctor Sleep. But it’s probably in its most nuanced shape in this show, and even ties together every single theme that he’s attempting to touch upon. And that is the gravitational power of one’s small town origins. Through Riley Flynn’s (who is played to perfection by Zach Gilford) arc, Flanagan tries to delve again into the tragic nature of being born in a place that is tethered to you on a very granular level. It defines so much of who you are and has such a hold on you that you cannot see past a certain point in your life. It becomes such a haunting presence that every single event that brings you back to your birthplace seems to be manipulated by what you call home. Yes, the reasons are systemic, religious, and political to benefit metro cities, thereby uplifting the global image of a state or a country and acquiring funds. However, it’s the willingness of the people there to accept and marinate in the regression and laziness that comes with it, which makes the pull of your home more than a norm you can reason your way out of, and turns it into a villain. A monster. A devil.
Those living in metro cities will probably not relate to this and reduce it to an act of victimhood because they obviously have no self-awareness about their privilege. But, through Riley, Flanagan says that if you’re actively trying to fight this villain, this devil, whatever you like to call it, that is your regressive-as-hell hometown, you’re not feigning victimhood. You are understanding where your path ends and you are trying to make a difference. And when it comes to “making a difference”, it doesn’t have to be something that will be acknowledged by the President of your country and published by the Associated Press. It can very well be a small act of kindness or self-sacrifice that will make you a better person and give your loved ones a fighting chance at surviving the hell hole they are stuck in.
There’s a lot more to be said about the show. But that will only mean going into spoiler-heavy territories, which is the last thing you want to do. So, here are my concluding remarks. Midnight Mass is one of the best shows of the year and one of the best entries into the horror genre. This is clearly one of Mike Flanagan’s best works, who has orchestrated every department like a true maestro to give the audience an emotionally exhaustive yet educational experience.
Every single actor on this show, from Rahul Kohli (who is going to break your heart, even if it is as cold as ice, with his performance) to Kate Siegel (where’s her Emmy?), Hamish Linklater (watch out for this guy), Annabeth Gish, Michael Trucco, Henry Thomas (an absolute chameleon), Rahul Abburi, Crystal Balint, Matt Biedel, Alex Essoe, Kristin Lehman, Robert Longstreet, Igby Rigney, Annarah Cymone, Louis Oliver, and even the extras have given it their all to help you invest in their characters’ journeys. In an ideal world, this should have been released on a weekly basis because the episodes are heavy and you will need some time to digest it. Therefore, if it is possible and you’re not governed by your urge to put up a reaction on social media, try to space out the episodes so that you can tackle all the heady themes properly. That said, no matter which way you choose to consume the show, no matter what your religious inclinations are, and no matter how big or small of a horror fan you are, please, do watch Midnight Mass.