Director: Mickey Reece
Stars: Molly C. Quinn, Jake Horowitz, Ben Hall
***Warning, this review contains spoilers, and I would recommend viewing the film with as little foreknowledge as possible***
Sick of the tropes and predictability of cheapo exorcism flicks? So is Mickey Reece. One of the rising stars of the American indie scene, Reece has a rascal’s habit of taking established trappings of varying horror subgenres and rotating them onto a different axis. With Agnes he takes hold of the assumed trajectory of a possession story and gives it a loving twist. In the process he gets closer to the motivations behind such terrors than most dare. Agnes ends on a crushing note, but one shared quietly between two adults over the dull gloss of diner tabletop. Ordinary. Every day. And bravura.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Reece upsets the apple cart from the off. The film’s cold open presents the nuns of Santa Theresa around the dinner table. The expected mood of sacrosanct piety is collapsed by the sudden torrent of filth pouring from the mouth of our titular Agnes (Hayley MacFarland), whose hysterical outburst collides the film with it’s riot grrrl style title card. Reece’s puckish interruption of anticipated norms is underway.
Agnes continues to defy and surprise. We’re then introduced to disgraced and sceptical Father Donaghue (Ben Hall); supposedly a seasoned pro in the realm of exorcisms who dismisses the existence of demons outright, much to the incredulity of his disciple priest Benjamin (Jake Horowitz). The two are dispatched to the convent to deal with the possession.
Here Reece writhes in the muck and mire of the legacy of nunsploitation with giddy aplomb; his approach far more irreverent than, say, Paul Verhoeven’s recent offering. He presents us a cavalcade of sensationally-starved women (cream of the crop being the riotous Sister Honey (Zandy Hartig)), while Hall mines the material to round out his weathered and leathery Father Donaghue; a genuine highlight who carries much of the movie’s first half. During this time – as Reece tears the wings off of the exorcism movie template – the film’s surreptitious lead Mary (Molly C. Quinn) is kept to the sidelines; watching the ongoing farce, but rarely directly involved in it’s protracted incidents.
Agnes‘ major upset – one might argue – occurs mid-film, when the narrative abruptly swerves and the shape of the whole gives way. What might’ve been assumed to mark a violent and bloody climax instead acts as a bisecting event. Reece’s film reconfigures itself wholesale, shelving most of it’s established characters and foregrounding Mary; formerly devout, now floundering away from the church like Sandra Bullock disconnected from her umbilical in Gravity.
The events of the first half of the film – contained within the walls of the convent – come to feel like hothouse hi-jinx compared to the blandly cruel reality that Mary discovers in the wider realms of the godless world. Untethered from her faith and confronted with the everyday awfulness of lecherous men and dead-end jobs, Mary becomes susceptible to despondence, and the threat of spiritual bankruptcy. It is here that the finely played late addition of Sean Gunn as struggling stand-up comedian Paul Satchimo sends Agnes onto yet another path. These narrative transgressions alone enable Reece’s film to stand out from the crowd, but it’s the things he refuses his audience that garner as much respect once the dust has settled.
Jump scares? No. Raucous blood-letting? A little bit, but usually in the aid of farce. Resolution? Now you’re really asking a lot. Indeed, the MO of Agnes is the banal terror that comes from living without faith, either outwardly or a closeted inner lack. Humdrum loneliness and uncertainty becomes Mary’s greatest foe. These are deeply unusual concepts for such material to wade through, making Agnes genuinely refreshing, new and exceedingly relatable.
Agnes reveals itself as an erudite and thoughtful essay on faith in crisis; one that presents the idea that possession – if it occurs – happens only when a void is created within. With her own faith shaken, Mary is threatened by the potentiality of Agnes’ fate. Ostensibly out of the picture, Agnes haunts these later scenes in a figurative sense. Reece doesn’t need to manifest her ghoulishly in the background. We always feel her there.
The film’s late swerves and it’s astonishingly well-written final scene secure Agnes‘ place as one of the year’s most essential surprises, but it’s themes reveal themselves throughout. Father Donaghue casually urging Benjamin to wear a collar he hasn’t earned, for example, not to mention the elder priest’s own casually eroded faith. Yet Donaghue himself talks of the pain of waiting for God, belying the existential crisis lying in wait.
Lazy debunkings of faith are ten-a-penny, and it’s easy to assume, going in, that Reece’s mockery will follow suit. But there’s more happening here. If Agnes is wryly blasphemous then this belies an assurance that it’s position – and it’s questions – have been genuinely considered, and that there is room in religion for doubt, just as there is in agnosticism or atheism. What we hold onto is up to us.
Agnes is one of those rare, singular horror movies that doesn’t feel quite like anything else surrounding it, and Mickey Reece is boldly making his mark. Thank Bune for that.