2021 | rated R | starring Molly Quinn, Hayley McFarland, Ben Hall, Jake Horowitz, Chris Browning, Chris Sullivan | directed by Mickey Reece | 1 hr 33 mins |
In a secluded convent, a group of Carmelite nuns reach out for help when young Agnes (Hayley McFarland) starts exhibiting signs of demon possession. The church calls on Father Donague (Ben Hall) and a deacon, not yet to take his vows, Father Ben (Jake Horowitz, The Vast of Night) to perform the exorcism. However, Agnes proves more formidable than the jaded elder Father expected, the younger Ben provides temptation for the nuns in the convent and Agnes’ friend Mary (Molly Quinn) struggles with what this all means for her faith.
Agnes, not to be confused with Darren Lynn Bouseman’s nun thriller St. Agnes and particularly not Rose Glass’s masterful Saint Maud, takes its time to set up several juicy storylines that it will eventually just punt out of the movie without a second thought. The first and most clever thing the film does is space out it’s introductions. It lingers on Mary’s face in a crowd of nuns just enough so that we know she will become important, however Quinn’s character is on-screen several times before getting any meaningful dialog (if at all). Instead we start off with our pair of Deacons and the movie sets up a veteran-rookie relationship between Donague, an exorcist who doesn’t believe in demons and is seemingly on very thin ice with a scandal at his back, and the young idealistic Ben who eagerly embraces the seriousness of his task.
The movie also sets up a friendship between Agnes and Mary that both actresses have exactly one scene to make convincing before the film is ready to move on. In this stew the script also throws Father Black (Chris Browning) a TV famous exorcist known for his flashy presentation and his smoking femme fetal sidekick who Donague calls in for backup. Director Mickey Reece frontloads the movie with a concern for sex, with the strict bespectacled Mother Superior concerned that the arrival of these two men will create too much temptation. The film also embraces a purely supernatural side with an opening scene that leaves no ambiguity (despite what the film insists later) that Agnes is in fact possessed by a supernatural force.
In only 93 minutes I went on quite the rollercoaster of interpretations of Agnes. None of them very good. The film pulls out several twists, turns, time-jumps, flash-forwards, genre-blending, expectation subverting and introduces several characters as entry points in the story before deciding on who we will be focusing on. Problem is, a competent visual aesthetic and some solid performances are the only things keeping this oh-so serious carnival from tipping over into pure camp. But it’s bad in an interesting way that suggests there is at least some ambition buried under this hackneyed mess of misbegotten ideas.
That everything set up will ultimately lead to a grungy, typical indie drama where Molly tries to make ends meet working at a grocery store and having pie with guys in a dinner is exactly the kind of trendy expectation-subverting nonsense that makes the movie feel tone deaf. Everything here feels like it plays out simply because “that’s what indie movies do”. Characters in indie movies are poor and work bad jobs. Women in indie movies deal with gross bosses (This is Us’ Chris Sullivan) trying to hit on them. They go on bad dates. Religious characters in indie movies all have a crisis of faith.
Similarly in the first half, when the film is setting up it’s horror movie bait and switch, it’s static shots of spider-webs and liberal use of violin strings feel like traditional horror movie tropes. If the back half of Agnes is a pretentious indie slog, the first half is a laughable genre movie. Demon possessed Agnes has the cups and saucers floating around like they’re props in the The Haunted Mansion and doors menacingly fling open while Mary grips her hands together in prayer. There are always advantages and disadvantages to teasing our the ambiguity of how supernatural the reality of your film can be. There is no doubt that Agnes breaks that mystery in an absurd way very early.
Agnes radically splits itself in half and becomes two different movies. It’s a structure that frustrated everyone when Stanley Kubrick did it in Full Metal Jacket and now everyone has just come to accept. It can work, it works in Full Metal Jacket, but the split here doesn’t just jump us in time and location but cuts the film off almost entirely from every single theme and thread before it. It’s an exorcism movie that isn’t about the exorcism and it wants you to discuss how profound that is. What happens after the exorcism? It’s a question nobody asks and the answer is nothing.
Agnes makes a nice comparison against Saint Maud, which again is one of my very favorite films of 2021. Saint Maud actually is a psychological thriller wrapped in a story of faith, that uses visual imagination instead of flash-fowards to put the audience in a disoriented state. Saint Maud took clever care to present it’s story not one where faith was driving someone to madness, but was being used by someone who was already mad looking for a new vehicle to express it. Saint Maud did the grungy indie thing with style and artistry, in a straight satisfying story that pays off what it sets up and still manages to shock while doing it. Agnes is a crisis-of-faith movie that doesn’t know how to talk about faith.