Netflix's Faith-Based Thriller Messiah Leads Viewers Astray

Netflix’s “Messiah” is a half-fascinating, half-frustrating new series about just how much the world is not prepared for a sequel to a story that billions already believe in. Enter Al-Masih, a man from Syria who can perform certain miracles, speak brilliantly in front of thousands of people, and also might just be a complete fraud. Whether or not they’re for real, a flesh-and-blood messiah would undoubtedly bring some peace, but also chaos. It's a riveting premise for a thriller—and from religious executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, nonetheless—but the series is far better at raising "What if?" questions than it is in offering sufficient teases concerning who this man is, what he wants, and what he actually can do. With its melodramatic storytelling and excess of side characters who break the show's focus, "Messiah" nearly runs out of ideas once it's done establishing a zeitgeist none of us have seen before. 

Created by Michael Petroni, “Messiah” starts off with great promise by imagining the step by steps of how it would all play out. Where would this messiah come from, and how would they amass their followers? In this case, the messiah appears in Damascus, and after speechifying through a monumental sand storm, leads a group of Palestinian Syrians to the border of Israel. Known as Al-Masih (Mehdi Dehbi), the mysterious figure quickly gets under the radar of Israeli authorities who aren’t sure what to do about him—or the new refugees that he’s left behind in the desert with no orders. Al-Masih is interrogated by a man in the Israeli Army named Aviram (Tomer Sisley), who his haunted by a young boy he killed in his past. Aviram is just one of many people that Al-Masih interacts with and challenges, especially in the show’s compelling spectacle of watching people debate within themselves as to whether or not they believe in him. 

“Messiah” has an international scope but is very much about what would happen if this messiah were to turn up in America. John Ortiz plays a reverend in the small town of Dilley, Texas, whose weaning faith is rejuvenated by his own experience with Al-Masih, after the figure suddenly appears in his town during a tornado, and saves the life of his teenage daughter Rebecca (Stefania LaVie Owen). As a front row witness to another Al-Masih miracle, Ortiz’s desperate and then hopeful Felix fashions himself a type of messenger, and someone who must protect him when Al-Masih is arrested for unlawfully entering the country. 

There is so much that is not known about Al-Masih, and the series builds itself around an entity who is his own J.J. Abrams-like mystery box, with everyone projecting their own needs and problems onto Dehbi’s often silent character. His performance rises and falls with the series, initially the precise type of leader who commands a growing amount of crowds, and through the small miracles creates something that seems larger than any regular person. The show offers little peeks into his background, like when he discretely does a coin trick for a little boy, or when it’s revealed that one of his speeches was plagiarized from an American radical. It’s this tight rope act that the story capably walks, and Dehbi’s performance makes one consider the precision of his actions, and what he does and does not say. He has the sharpness of a calculated con artist, but there’s also a video of him standing outside in the middle of a tornado, so who’s to say that he isn’t in some way more than human? 

James McTeigue directs the first half of the series as if he were working on another sci-fi project, this one more grounded than career landmark “V for Vendetta” but with the same desired scope in presenting a type of world-changing event. You only realize once he stops directing (by episode six, and then returns for nine and ten) that’s he been brought on to work with the truely interesting stuff—the magic tricks, be it the cultural feats that Al-Masih accomplishes, or his enigmatic presence. All the while, Al-Masih’s journey through America’s fixation on a Chosen One is spiked with real-life matters that make render the premise all the more immediate and exciting, like when the ACLU, Fox News, Buzzfeed, and America’s immigration policies all play their respective parts. 

But "Messiah" plateaus by its sixth episode, all while it should be building. It’s in these passages that the initial appeal of subtext weakens to on-the-nose text, where the mass amount of side characters take away from the focus and make the first season’s ten-episode length seem like a curse. The show is flattened by melodramatic arcs about characters dealing with their personal woes, like a woman who desperately wants Al-Masih to cure her sick daughter, or someone who tries to tempt Al-Masih, only to be defeated by his stoicism. Only a few of these arcs have something to do with the people in Al-Masih’s orbit, and it creates an overall tedious pacing for a story that clearly has more impact when it has a smaller focus (the story could have made for a great two-hour movie). Even an arc that’s meant to prime season two, about a young Palestinian man named Jabril (Sayid El Alami), is so tepid and obvious that it just makes each episode feel even longer. 

It’s not just Al-Masih who suffers from the story’s lack of focus: Michelle Monaghan plays an initially fascinating character, a dedicated CIA agent one who approaches Al-Masih with logical skepticism from the onset. But by this slump in the story she becomes more of a largely expositional piece, like when she flat out asks out loud, “what better agent of chaos than a messiah?” Other scenes largely involve her digging into the truth, and instead of making the story more interesting, it makes the script’s elusiveness with key details all the more tedious. Her own drama with her father (Philip Baker Hall) and the loss of her husband mostly fills up air-time, and feel detached from the issues at hand, as if these were all pieces to a rinky-dink “worlds colliding” ensemble piece like “Crash.” 

Sometimes getting through a TV show, especially one that wants you to binge all 450 minutes of it is, is a matter of keeping the faith. That’s just like with the people who follow Al-Masih, who go through long stretches where they are uncertain what Al-Masih wants, but they still follow him to a desert, or sit with him in silence. The writers of "Messiah" are much less smooth—they can hook people in with a mystery, stoke up their hopes of what might come next, but what little payoff there is feels like a rip-off. Even the cliffhanger five minutes before the season's end is too clumsy to leave an impact. As someone who was initially hooked by “Messiah” and its imagination for a very tangible chaos, by the end I didn’t even care to find out whether Al-Masih was the real deal or not. 

All of season one screened for review.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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