There’s a demented fascination with nuns in modern society that I feel is worth examining. It’s an alien world of pious faith that most cannot even begin to understand, but we have taken many steps in trying to. From Black Narcissus to The Sound of Music to Sister Act to Novitiate (oh my god watch this movie!) to the upcoming Benedetta, we’ve stretched the gamut as an industry in telling stories of nuns and their foreign world. Whether it be for comedy, tragedy, or terror, a convent provides an isolated, contained setting to effectively tell a story in, and I can’t get enough honestly. The dementedness does not come unwarranted, as the strict lifestyle and theatrical nature of the Catholic Church, particularly the ways of the cloistered, provides so many avenues to go as big or as small as you want as a storyteller, and it does a lot of the legwork in creating any atmosphere you could want. Mickey Reece’s Agnes uses this to its advantage in getting off on the right foot in telling a dark, disturbing tale in a convent…
…so why couldn’t it stick its landing? Perhaps it was gunning for just a little too much than what the sisters could offer.
Mary (Molly C. Quinn) is a young nun having just taken her vows when she begins to witness the slow, but violent degradation of her best friend’s, Agnes’s (Hayley McFarland), mental state, which the church determines is caused by demonic possession. Father Donoghue (Ben Hall) and his neophyte, Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) are called in to help exorcise the affected Agnes, leading to a crisis of faith for all involved in witnessing this violent outburst of terror within a young, pious girl.
I honestly have to commend Agnes for taking storytelling risks and trying something new in the world of exorcism films, as it certainly doesn’t play as straightforward as it sounds on paper. The issue is that, particularly within its tight 93-minute runtime, it bites off more than it can chew in just how many stark narrative shifts and new ideas it can throw at the audience at once, which unfortunately leads to much of it feeling peckish and unstructured. Agnes simply tries to make a protagonist out of too many characters, leaving none of them as particularly deep or meaningful, but rather as a means to an underwhelming narrative end. It left me wondering what much of the point was in many of the longer, drawn-out scenes of philosophical dialogue that never built up to much of anything.
There’s a more lighthearted, whimsical tone with the first act of Agnes that, once I picked up on, I was kind of with for a little while. It’s campy, somewhat cheap religious horror, and I couldn’t complain about it too much. It’s not necessarily what I would go for, but it’s a narrative decision I respected and enjoyed in the moment. It’s just unfortunate that the film eventually strays so far from this initial promise into something that takes itself far more seriously, and leaves the entire ordeal feeling a bit too tonally inconsistent for my liking. Had it stuck with one tone while throwing each plot twist and story progression our way, I would’ve more easily embraced it, but its insistence to be all over the place at once leaves all of it feeling a bit for naught.
But there’s just something that prevents me from not respecting Agnes, even if I didn’t identify with it much at all. I can’t look at something that tries so much to be different and scoff at it in the same way I can do that with a horror film that simply takes no risks. It’s a whole different monster of disappointment and sadness that I simply couldn’t get over many of the tonal changes and the scatterbrained nature of the entire film, because I need more people working in the genre like Mickey Reece who want to make things with new ideas, even if I don’t find those new ideas particularly fulfilling as a viewer. I want 10 more Agnes-es before one more IP reboot that offers nothing in the way of anything new, even if the formula isn’t technically broken. It’s such a frustrating spot to be in as a critic, but I simply must deeply respect everything on display here, even if it’s simply not for me.
Screening during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.