Agnes [FantasiaFest ’21]

Mickey Reece’s Agnes is a horror movie that deals with a demonic possession at a religious convent. Its unfamiliar category and tonal shift in the middle of the film make it an interesting addition to his filmography. Despite its dark plot, Agnes grapples with the themes of trauma, grief and loss. It adds humour into the mix, and makes it into one spectacular project that cannot be forgotten. As for the twist at the midpoint of the plot, it might be surprising and jarring but keeps the focus of a character that lingers in the background. What might seem like a movie about a nun possessed by a demon takes a heartfelt turn to look at the temptations outside of the Church.

Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) is summoned by the Church to investigate a rumoured demon possession in a religious convent among one of the nuns. Father Donaghue is already in trouble with the Church for his cynicism. Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), a priest in training, tags along with him at the request of his superiors, is met with temptation and the ultimate test of their faith. When the two priests arrive at the religious convent, they are confronted by Mother Superior (Mary Buss) who reveals to them their strict lifestyle. After reassuring her that they are only here to perform an exorcism on poor Agnes (Hayley McFarland), they begin their work. Father Donaghue’s plans massively fail, one that ended with Agnes biting his nose off. He calls for assistance from Father Henry Black (Chris Browning), a priest with a television personality that dons red leather suits. His demeanour threatens Mother Superior and her nuns but Father Donaghue insists on his help, as this would be his last resort. Unfortunately, this plan fails and Agnes ends up attacking Father Black and everything falls into chaos. 

Throughout this ordeal, there is another nun, Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn) that is dealing with the loss of her friend, Agnes, with whom she spends her days before committing to the Church. They are bonded by loss, Agnes, for the man that she loved, and Mary, for the loss of her baby boy. Mary leaves the convent as she can’t bear to watch her friend go through this and tries to navigate her life outside. She takes a job, stays at a rented apartment, and is confused with religion and dealing with the exorcism and the loss of her baby boy. She meets Paul Saitchimo (Sean Gunn), Agnes’ partner and teacher before she started her life at the Church. They briefly talk about Agnes and head over to Paul’s house. As they get intimate, Mary bites Paul and starts laughing hysterically, and Paul demands her to leave immediately. From this point onwards, Mary starts to spiral out of control, acting suspiciously out of character, and later calls on help from Benjamin. 

The twist at the midpoint solidifies how Agnes cannot be categorised into one genre. It falls on dry humour, unexpected twists while exploring the darker themes of death, trauma, loss, and the crisis of faith. In terms of the comedy aspect, especially during the first half of the movie, Reece focuses on the relationship between a cynic priest and a young priest. They are not all that familiar with how an exorcism should work. Moreover, the hilarious jabs between Father Donaghue and Mother Superior and the nun’s fascination towards Benjamin are worthy of a chuckle as they battle the temptations of lust in their strict convent. The first half is entirely covered with comedic moments between the characters until the movie reaches the midpoint, changing the tone altogether. 

Perhaps the most interesting part about Agnes would be when the story focuses on Mary’s moody and sudden shift in her character. Altogether, Mary feels that she is lost in her post-church life as she tries to navigate the real world after a very long time. The change makes her feel lonelier than ever, even though it is refreshing to see her live it. The audience can feel Quinn’s charismatic performance as Mary, played with such quietness and later flips it to a different side of the character. Agnes questions whether who exactly needs help after all. Both Mary and Agnes share a friendship filled with tremendous loss, and this bond is shown through a sequence of flashbacks of Mary and Agnes working at the store, smoking inside the religious convent, and even faces of people that she meets later in the movie. All surmises that Mary, who sits back and watches losing her friend and child to be the victim and ultimately isolates herself from the grief that will soon follow her life. As Agnes lays in the bed with her just before they perform the final exorcism, she tells Mary, “You have to bury the dead, Mary”, and moves on beyond her life at the church.
 
Agnes might not be for everyone but it offers a lot more than demonic possession, floral arrangements, frosted cakes and temptations between nuns and priests. Reece ambitiously flips the movie into a heart-bending moment that focuses on the life of Mary, the one who needs special care from her superiors. Agnes is at the heart of a movie about loss, friendship, family and faith. An experimentation film that plays with memories and wounds that are horrifying to deal with, selfhood as well as religion. It’s a delicious entry into the Fantasia International Film Festival, and it dares to take risks.