Unpacking the magnetism of Mike Flanagan’s hot priest

Jamie Tram on Hamish Linklater’s charisma, and the resonance of Midnight Mass' characters

You’re reading Scene & Heard, a weekly newsletter where I chat to a guest writer about the one scene from a recent Netflix release that left them floored. It’s part of Netflix Pause, a publication that’s all about hitting pause to reflect on the latest film and TV. Subscribe now to get it in your inbox every week diving into screen culture.

Boo! I’m Jared Richards, editor of Netflix Pause, and this spooky season, I’m going to tackle the horror classics I’ve always been too scared to watch. I feel especially motivated after loving Mike Flanagan’s latest show, Midnight Mass — a reminder I’m missing out on magic just because of some (admittedly scream-inducing) jump scares.

Despite the supernatural horrors, Flanagan’s work (The Haunting Of Hill House, The Haunting Of Bly Manor, Doctor Sleep) is always disarmingly real, in large part because of his characters. Nuanced and full of life (well, until they’re not), their internal demons are often just as terrifying as any bloodthirsty figure.

For this week’s Scene & Heard, Flanagan fanboy and horror screenwriter Jamie Tram takes a look at one of Midnight Mass’ most enigmatic figures, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a relatively young (and, according to Jamie, hot) priest who takes over preaching on the tiny Crockett Island while the town’s aging Monsignor Pruitt recovers from illness on the mainland. In this scene, we see his charisma in full force, as he turns an Ash Wednesday sermon into a stirring speech on sin and hope.

JR: I love this scene you chose: I’m not religious at all, but I honestly think I’d probably tear up too if I was sitting in those pews.

Father Paul’s sermon is strangely comforting, isn’t it? In this scene, he promises a better future for his struggling parish: “that same hand that dealt you your hardship, that same hand will make you whole”. 

No matter our beliefs, I think we all want to be reassured that life can rise from the depths of despair — plus, I’d happily let Hamish Linklater (The Big Short, Unicorn Store) lead me to salvation. This scene is a terrific showcase of Linklater’s distinctive charisma, channelled into a character who’s driven by unwavering moral certainty. It’s a seductive combination — but is there really a way out from our past? Mike Flanagan has spent his whole career trying to answer this question in one form or another. 

It’s a conflict that can be found in The Haunting of Hill House, as well as Flanagan’s own life; as an ex-alcoholic who’s now three years sober, he understands that the cycles of addiction are infinitely scarier than any supernatural terror. 

Without spoiling things, there’s an addiction at play with Paul too. Do you think that darker side is part of his appeal?

Like the Hot Priest from Fleabag, there’s a paradoxical allure to Paul which kept me coming back for more. After all, priests are meant to be these flawlessly virtuous figures. There’s something endearing, even exciting seeing them falter in recognisably human ways. 

When it comes to Paul, he’s a charming, emotionally available guy with good taste in cardigans and guidance to spare. On the other hand, he has the mother of all messiah complexes, and can transform into this towering, uncompromising figure on a dime. It’s an exciting tangle of contradictions that pairs good intentions with a compromised soul, and Linklater beautifully evokes the hidden menace underneath the sensitive demeanour. Is he a good boy gone bad, or a bad boy with a heart of gold? I’m still not sure.

Upon reflection, it was an incredibly bold move for Paul, a near-complete stranger, to repeatedly announce he’ll lead the community of Crockett Island to the promised land. But none of the red flags register because his delivery is so engrossing – a recurring thread throughout the series. 

Notably, this scene foreshadows Paul’s obsession with turning tragedy and sin into something new. Of course, life often does rise out of the darkness, but his central delusion lies in a refusal to accept that sometimes, trauma doesn't have a greater purpose; it just destroys.

That’s why it's so interesting when he runs AA meetings with the town’s two (known) alcoholics, Riley and Joe. While Paul believes there’s a higher meaning for their past mistakes, they’re not convinced. Sometimes terrible things just happen. Of the two views, where do you side?

Respectfully, I don’t believe there’s necessarily a point in tragedy, but that’s not to say we must succumb to despair. I’m coming from a secular perspective – but I grew up surrounded by both Buddhism and Christianity, and the lessons I’ve learned from religion have absolutely guided my own life. Part of why Midnight Mass resonates with me is because it understands the beauty of faith — not just in a higher power, but within and among ourselves. With this faith comes the possibility for forgiveness, and only through forgiveness can past transgressions be transposed into something new.

This isn’t to say the path to redemption is easy. I think a lot about Leeza’s confrontation with Joe, over her spinal injury that he caused in a drunken shooting accident. It’s an unbearably tense scene, fixated on the real-life horrors of Joe’s addiction. 

There’s no monster to run away from here; instead, Joe’s cornered by the consequences of his alcoholism. What's remarkable about the scene is that Leeza offers forgiveness at the end of the traumatic ordeal, a gesture that convinces the self-loathing drunk to begin his path to recovery. As Father Paul proclaims in his sermon, “Even out of blackness, love rises again”. To be sure, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but Flanagan paves it with broken glass.

Earlier, you mentioned Paul’s red flags. Watching, we know something’s up — this is a Flanagan horror, after all — but why do you think almost all of Crockett Island is happy to ignore that creeper vibe?

Frankly, if I were any of these characters, I’d be convinced that I was living under a curse. 

Their town was already in steep decline before an oil spill decimated the fishing industry on which their livelihoods depended, causing droves of people to flee to the distant mainland. The scattered population of the island and its rickety, eroding buildings certainly give off a post-rapture vibe, with its inhabitants resembling godforsaken stragglers left behind in a shattered, chaotic world. In the face of their considerable misfortune, it’s not hard to see why this island community gravitates towards the glimmer of hope offered by Father Paul.

The horror of Midnight Mass is best described as a slow-burn — one which gradually corrodes its characters. Among the mounting omens and unsettling supernatural occurrences, the primary source of dread lies in our helpless observation of this island as it becomes corrupted by sin. None of this would work without Flanagan’s acute characterisation and his generous humanity: we understand these people every step of the way on their path to annihilation, whether it’s Mayor Scarborough’s escalating attempts to protect his daughter Leeza, or Muslim teen Ali’s disillusionment as a religious outsider. It all poses a confronting question to us, the viewer - how far would we go?

In most horrors, I feel like I’m screaming (internally, sometimes externally) at the characters’ ridiculous choices. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I felt that urge once during Midnight Mass.

Well, I usually cheer on the silly stuff in horror! When a character keeps tripping over while running away from the killer? That’s cinema. Genuinely, I love that horror so often helps us confront our biggest fears through abstraction, allowing us to live (or die, I suppose) vicariously through these kinds of disposable characters. 

Then there’s Mike Flanagan, who takes a more direct approach in exploring the things which scare him. His characters feel like they’re actually made of flesh and blood, in part because they inhabit his own worst nightmares. Again, his personal struggles with addiction add a startling nuance and depth to characters like Riley and Joe (not to mention Oliver from Hill House and the Torrance family from Doctor Sleep), and the ensemble of Midnight Mass are all drawn from his past as an altar boy in a tiny fishing community. As a result, the mistakes they make feel genuine and painfully recognisable, eliciting sympathy rather than eye-rolls. Which is fitting, for a show so concerned with forgiveness.

Flanagan is obviously no slouch when it comes to unleashing sheer, unadulterated terror (to this day, I look out my window at night begging not to see glowing eyes), but what makes his horror storytelling so effective is how it blends the monstrous and the innocent. 

Midnight Mass features heavy philosophical discussions which feel like Flanagan conversing with himself, a back-and-forth between characters and disparate viewpoints which attempt to make sense of a world with seemingly no moral centre. But I don’t really consider Midnight Mass to be a despairing experience, not in the least. In fact, the key to this series lies within Father Paul’s sermon above - “in the darkness, in the worst of it, in the absence of light and hope, we sing”.

Or scream-sing, in the case of Midnight Mass’ more terrifying moments. Ready?

That's just called karaoke, Jared.

Jamie Tram is a culture writer, screenwriter, and Halloween enthusiast from Naarm/Melbourne. 

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