by Travis William Mateer
From the opening scene of Midnight Mass, I knew this narrative was going to be important for me to pay close attention to, and I knew it related to Donnie Darko, a movie celebrating its 20th birthday this month.
The first time I watched Donnie Darko–a few years after its October 26th, 2001 release date–it hit me hard, especially the death-catalyst near the end.
I should probably warn readers at this point LOTS of spoilers will be revealed during this pop-culture mishmash of MM/DD.
Midnight Mass, a seven-part series on Netflix, begins with Riley Flynn sitting drunk and dazed on the street as first responders work to revive a dead young woman. She stays dead, just like the love interest of Donnie Darko, Gretchen, stays dead when Frank (the teenager, not the creepy rabbit thing) hits her in his car.
This death-by-car echoes a tragedy that touched my own life when, on April 1st, the young woman I went to my senior prom with died violently when a drunk college student committed vehicular manslaughter while she was crossing the street.
Her name was Lisa Rosel.
Death is an obvious theme in many works of art because death is a common, looming shadow hanging over all our lives.
Midnight Mass takes place on a tiny, east-coast island on the brink of cultural death brought on by a massive diesel spill that ruined the fishing the men on the island relied on. The Catholic priest, Monsignor Pruitt, is a much talked about figure, but absent in the early episodes. A new priest, Paul Hill, arrives to minister to the town.
Names are important.
After 4 years in prison, Riley returns to the island, haunted by the death he caused. Riley is afflicted, like Donnie, with an illness, and he’s looking for something. Purpose? Salvation? Forgiveness?
After Paul Hill arrives on the island, miraculous things begin to happen. The town drunk gets sober after the crippled young woman he accidentally shot (her name is Lisa) suddenly stands from her wheelchair. She takes these miraculous steps after Priest Hill beckons her to do so, in church, during communion.
Later, a suspicious Riley asks the Priest during their AA meeting: how did you know?
When the Lisa I knew died, it was damn hard. I grew up in suburbia, where a lot of energy is invested in keeping up pretenses. We don’t like to talk about the bad things that happen among the children of the affluent because it casts a long shadow of doubt that money is not enough, and maybe the rat race is a sham.
Donnie Darko takes place in suburbia–Middlesex, Virginia, 1988 to be exact–and to be even more exact, the film begins on October 2nd.
There’s a clock running, and that clock is a countdown to the end of the world, as foretold by Frank, the creepy rabbit thing. You won’t know in the end what happens until it does.
I think there are angels in Donnie Darko, but I’m not sure. One of Donnie’s teachers might be one (his name is Dr. Kenneth).
I KNOW there is an “angel” in Midnight Mass because this angel gives everlasting life with its kick-ass angel blood.
The problem is, once you get this awesome angel blood, you see the pulsing lifeblood of others as a luminescent food source to feed an insatiable hunger. Also, the sun can kill you.
In the film Donnie Darko, the inspiring figure who plays a priest-like role is the motivational speaker played by Patrick Swayze, Jim Cunningham.
One of Jim’s most adoring fans is the Christian fundamentalist character, Kitty Farmer. She is totally obnoxious and ALSO the force behind pimping out the Sparkle Motion girls to the insatiable hunger of the public (and Ed McMahon).
You know, the kind of public (and father) that fed on Brittany Spears when she was objectified for consumption, and is STILL FEEDING on her as the documentaries come out.
Feeding on the life force of humans is a well-worn horror trope.
Donnie’s mom, Rose, must like horror stories, because she is seen in one scene reading Stephen King’s IT, and the creator of Midnight Mass, Mike Flanagan, ALSO likes that horror story writer, considering he directed the awful “sequel” to Stephen King’s movie, The Shining, called Doctor Sleep.
That fucking movie has a scene I’d like to unwatch, if I could, because I don’t get off on snuff porn.
While death is a part of life, the FEAR of death is a BIG part of a monumental effort to gaslight humanity. If you want a better idea of what I’m talking about, check out Burch Driver’s talk with Sam Tripoli, titled The Scarcity of Life is Leveraged by Death.
While Donnie Darko exposes Jim Cunningham as a pedophile (after Frank, the bunny, gives Donnie his marching orders in a movie theater, which close watchers will recall featured a marquee that reads THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST), Riley exposes Paul Hill after catching him in a lie.
A crucial scene that shows how Priest Hill/Monsignor Pruitt handles the question of death and faith for a young child occurs during a brutal honesty session with Riley.
The two men (both nightwalkers now) sit facing each other in the AA chairs. Pruitt-Hill tells Riley about a child who brought him a terminally injured mouse in a shoebox when he was a young priest. Pruitt-Hill explains how he creates a false illusion for the boy and calls it the work of god. He accomplishes this deceit by spending three days finding a replacement mouse to ape a resurrection.
Priest Hill uses this story to reveal who he really is, both literally, to Riley (because Riley was that little boy), and figuratively, to the astute viewer.
The personal experience I draw on, as a viewer, is the difficult, yet honest, conversation my wife and I had with our boys when our dog, Banjo, passed away. We didn’t bullshit them with an illusion. We started talking to them about death and grief and what we don’t know, for certain, but hope might happen wherever we go, however our energy transitions.
To rationalize creating an elaborate mouse resurrection for a smart kid with tough questions, Priest Pruitt-Hill tells Riley about his own experience as an 8 year old watching in terrified horror as his older sister slowly died of Polio. He was only trying to protect that boy with the dying mouse from the horrors of death, don’t you see. It was for his own good.
Despite leaving the island and making bank as a venture capitalist, Riley did not do things with his life that were good in any meaningful way. He was courting death long before ending the life of the young woman who crossed his self-destructive path.
For Donnie, it was stepping outside his fate when he DID NOT DIE like he was supposed to, via plane engine, that ultimately creates the conditions where Gretchen dies, also by car accident.
Both Donnie and Riley arrive at the same conclusion: if saving who they love means they must face certain death, then that is the fate they decide to choose for themselves.
I hadn’t finished Midnight Mass when I wrote most of this post, but I have now. Would Pruitt-Hill be an unredeemable creep like Jim Cunningham?
No, Pruitt-Hill figures out how wrong he was in the end, as his flock’s island world burns in harsh apocalypse all around them.
Bev, the unhinged Kitty surrogate, on the other hand, is not so dignified as the sun rises, bringing obliteration to the shelter-less islanders.
I’d like to say these narratives are just metaphors, but that’s not what I believe. To know more about what I believe, listen to this episode of My Family Thinks I’m Crazy.
Thanks for reading.