If you read the synopsis or watched the trailer for Mickey Reece’s new film AGNES, prepare for some disappointment. All of the ads depict a group of nuns and claim you will witness “a demonic possession at a remote convent.” The film definitely sets up the viewer for an interesting, yet run-of-the-mill exorcism, but the focus of the movie is not on the convent. Or even the title character Agnes (Hayley McFarland). Instead, the youngest nun Mary (Molly Quinn) serves as the center of the plot. And at one point Mary quits the church and the movie follows her struggles with paying rent and dealing with a lecherous boss. The first part serves as some kind of misdirection because we get pulled into an exorcism story, but then the director abandons everything to focus on the self-excommunicated nun, which causes us to lose all interest in this uneven feature.
AGNES starts off full of excitement when we see a very dull birthday celebration for an elderly nun get rudely interrupted by the screaming and cake-throwing younger nun, Agnes. Clearly, her behavior means evil has a hold of her. So, what do you do when a young woman becomes possessed? You call a young priest and an old priest. Outside of the convent, the elder father Donaghue (Ben Hall) and newly ordained Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) meet before a group of priests and get instructions from the Bishop of the diocese to perform an exorcism. Donaghue balks at the request, but the higher-ups know of a scandal involving the older priest, so he has no option but to follow orders.
Father Donaghue seems weary of his faith at times, and he views his visit to the scared nuns as a simple vacation with no holy expertise necessary. The old priest, who is a bit of a flirt, finds himself (and his strapping young buck of a deacon) in a very stringent and closed-off convent. The reason for the extreme rules comes from the Mother Superior (Mary Buss) who runs her house in a manner considered strict even by the standards of the church. Therefore, the younger nuns struggle with obeying every command of the overly pious head nun, so the beginning of the film does not make it clear if a demon actually possesses Agnes, or if her behavior stems from something more psychological. As a viewer, you develop a relationship with the old priest and want to learn his story and see if he reconnects with his faith or if his cynicism will be the key to solving the fate of Agnes. And even though I hated the repressed and angry Mother Superior, I was still invested in her character and thought she deserved more than to basically disappear from the story.
Reece introduces some interesting characters and creates an engaging enough approach to his possession story, but about 45 minutes into AGNES the exorcism plot becomes almost entirely forgotten and just shows people quietly talking in rooms. The film is in fact, the opposite of a slow burn as it starts out by jumping into the action and developing characters, then abandons all of that and slowly crawls in a different direction. Mary did not leave the convent by herself, but don’t hold your breath for a big return of the demon. Definitely not the film I expected, and I am really curious why Reece chose to advertise the film as a horror, only to discard the plot and characters for such an unfulfilling ending.
Some critics might fawn over AGNES and find all kinds of meaning and importance in the never-ending conversations about life and faith. And I guess the film does go further than most (at least story-wise) when it comes to an exorcism as we see the after-effects the event has on a bystander, but why does Reece feel the need to explore this avenue? In 2019 the director combined horror and comedy in an artsy and untraditional manner in Climate of the Hunter. However, AGNES does not earn the same balance of horror and pretentiousness and, instead, renounces all the terror and trauma for a far more mundane second half.
AGNES had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.