Director Mickey Reece commenced with a promising idea for Agnes (2021), but without a firm grip over style, this quasi-horror and part-time drama derails pretty fast.
For some strange reasons, horrors about exorcisms pop up like mushrooms. Out of that ever-large pool, a vast majority arrives at the very same concepts of scares, same visual aesthetic and even the progression of the narrative remains oddly alike. I emphasize this phenomenon because these films rarely become financial breakthroughs. If anything, it’s pulp served to those hungering for cheap frights. But when a horror about a possessed nun makes it in the Tribeca line-up, such title naturally sparks up excitement.
Agnes (2021), directed by Mickey Reece, relies on beaten paths for most of its first half. A not-too-pious, silverback priest is called by his superiors, and asked to investigate a worrying outburst of a nun living in a convent of Saint Theresa. Such initial setup immediately brings The Devil’s Doorway (2017) to mind, a horror movie I’ve listed among top horror films of 2018.
Wearing the shoes of a counter-argument to Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) is Vicar Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), an unbelievably idealistic young man who simply doesn’t know the drill yet. For all my sympathy for Horowitz, who shined in The Vast of Night (2019), the role of Benjamin suffers from poor character development and, to be blunt, fallible casting too.
Upon the arrival at Saint Theresa, Reece begins to examine the bizarre dynamic of everyone included – an elderly father, who seems to have loosen up his screws a bit, the good-looking youngster and a group of women that either transmit fear or thirst over the “stud” (that’s actually the way that Father Donaghue refers to Benjamin in one scene). In the meantime, scares do show up, although Reece isn’t a bonafide master of horror. Agnes (2021) operates with dramatic zooms, a range of high-pitched violins, demonic voices of the possessed nun and so forth, but the punches are far from what many blockbusters (Conjuring saga) have in store.
As usual, the demon’s not an easy one to repel, and so we bring a self-proclaimed exorcist on board, who also happens to be a blatant copy of Walton Goggins’ impeccable performance in The Righteous Gemstones (2019-) as Baby Billy Freeman. And the moment Agnes (2021) seems to settle on going for the most obvious turn of events – an hour of “we can’t defeat the demon” and end with “oh, we somehow managed”, Reece not only switches the gears, but he basically starts the film anew. With a new lead, Mary (Molly C. Quinn), the one nun who most visibly sticks out from the rest of the convent, Agnes (2021) undergoes a makeover.
Apparently, Mary and the tormented nun Agnes were close; bonded over the loss of someone they loved in their pre-convent lives. For Agnes, it was her teacher, Paul (Sean Gunn). And for Mary, the baby boy she lost a few years back. It’s the latter topic that attracts Reece’s attention. Even if the step into the past enlightens us as to how the demon may have possessed Agnes, the second half of this film transforms itself from the core. Horror becomes subtle, unnerving, and the narrative style more hectic.
Molly C. Quinn also puts in a swell performance. She turns a withdrawn, slightly bland character into a compelling drama figure, ill in the eyes of the society that it once escaped and now needs a pass to re-socialize. Some ideas aren’t particularly well-executed though, and Mary tends to swerve into the areas of Joker (2019). Her confusion and mental instability are dangerously close to Arthur Fleck’s, and Reece also gets visually inspired by Todd Phillips’ work. Alas Quinn can’t get close to Joaquin Phoenix’s magnetism.
As a whole, Agnes (2021) is one of the most tonally inconclusive films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a psychological horror, but not a complete one, with elements of drama that blend with comedic bits. Such a basemesh of ideas never reveals its final artistic form, and although certain parts kept me intrigued, I feel my hunger left to grow.