Agnes is the kind of film you watch with a firmly furrowed brow and open mouth. It’s bizarre and unlike anything, you have seen before. It also might possibly be the best thing you see at Fantastic Fest this year.
Mickey Reece has carved out a niche of kooky, location-specific horror. Something difficult to define but easily recognized. Admittedly it hasn’t been for everyone. While I always appreciated his hyper-stylized choices, I couldn’t connect with his characters in any kind of intrinsic way. All of that changed with festival darling, and breakout hit Agnes. Not only is it scary in ways seen and heard, but the message is universally relevant and deeply disturbing.
This is a uniquely horrifying movie between the nervous titters, legitimate laughs, and shocking beats of violence. Set pieces are weird and punctuated with misplaced giant stuffed animals and gilded accouterments. Everything is just this side of odd. Camera angles shot from the crotch up tell everything you need to know about this searing indictment on abuse, confinement, and trauma. Agnes speaks to those who have been taken advantage of, exploited, and beat down.
Semi-disgraced Father Donahue and priest in training Benjamin have been sent to a convent to help Sister Agnes, who has begun spewing profanities and foaming at the mouth. The strict and isolated convent is out of its depth. Mother Superior can’t even begin to understand what would make Agnes act the way she has been. Out of desperation and deeply rooted respect for the male hierarchy in the Catholic Church, she has contacted the Diocese. They, in turn, have sent Father Donahue partly because he is the only priest trained to perform exorcisms and because it is a chance to excommunicate the man when things inevitably go south. Father Donahue comes with his own set of secrets and whispered rumors that unfortunately further define this tragic situation.
Sister Agnes has begun displaying all the classic signs of possession without actually doing anything supernatural. She could just as easily be possessed by the devil or simply over being mistreated. She slings curse words and, in general, acts like a rabid dog until they have no choice but to tie her down. The two men arrive at the convent in a parade of male pomp and girlish giggles. Donahue is jaded and has a shady past whispered about, while Benjamin is a true man of God ready to do his part in the battle for our mortal souls. The nuns are an equally strange group of doe-eyed idealists, rigid taskmasters, and in Mary and Agnes’ case, grief-stricken searchers for reason and faith. Unfortunately, Agnes finds none, and the rage consumes her resulting in disaster.
It is a film about abuse and trauma, and vulnerability in the places that should be safest. Sound design brilliantly highlights how both Agnes’ demon and rockstar Father Black, an equally obnoxious and funny Chris Browning, who comes later to rescue her, are probably both evil in their own way. Their voices resonate and echo off the stark convent walls, some with sarcastic overconfidence and the other with the searing anger of someone who has been so profoundly wronged they will never recover. Father Blacks’ ridiculous pompous behavior and absurd sound bites are more concerned with the show than the service.
Agnes has obvious roots in possession movies like the Exorcist but equally as many in Agnes of God, for whom it almost certainly is cheekily named. Evil comes in many forms and whether Agnes and later Mary are actually possessed by any demon or possessed by anger is irrelevant. There might be something horrible lurking in these walls. Mary and Agnes have been abused, and that abuse may have taken root in the very walls leaving behind stained corners and cracks forged in evil. Mary’s pain comes from another source, but she understands Agnes in a way the others can not.
These people live in their own bubbles where the “real” world exists only in theory. Strangely, this film reminded me of Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale. Everyone and everything is a bit of a caricature. Everything is precisely placed to convey a mood. The characters in Agnes aren’t criminals, masterminds, or duplicitous double agents, but many of them have secrets and questionable histories, especially in some of the Church’s authority figures. It’s easy to write everyone off as absurd cartoons when hysterical scenes display what could only be described as religious nun fantasy, but like Bad Times, Agnes is about more than the quirks. Scratch below the surface weirdness and universal truths stare back at you uncomfortably.
A midway shift finds Mary(Molly C. Quinn) out in a too bright, too brittle world that feels too much and not nearly enough at the same time. This is precisely the harsh world she left for the convent in the first place. As she navigates her way out of the convent and into the civilian world, she continues to have her faith challenged. Unfortunately, she is just as trapped as she was in the convent. Quinn is a revelation as bruised and broken Mary whose faith in God and man has been destroyed by all matters of terrible events, including the loss of a child and what happened to Agnes. Luminous even in her exhaustion, Quinn infuses Mary with quiet strength and grief.
Faith comes in the worst times. Perhaps that is what is best meant as faith. It is trust when none has been earned and, quite frankly, isn’t deserved. Agnes is about faith and trauma and how one influences the other. Who’s the bigger monster, the demon from hell, our inner demons, or the very human monsters that take advantage? Agnes asks all those questions and more. The Devil might possess Agnes, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t also pissed as hell. In the final act, all of that spills out in violent ways.
Reece might just be the Coen Brothers of horror. It is a very specific breed of horror that revels in the weird and lives in distinct places that are very familiar and completely alien. It’s the sort of place where you poke fun because although it is strange, it feels like home in uncanny ways. Agnes is a solid addition to his rural America quirky horror that finds footing in the common despite the abnormality. With strong direction, effective cinematography, adaptive sound design, and a tremendous performance by Molly C. Quinn, it is easily one of the best movies you will see at Fantastic Fest this year. Find all our Fantastic Fest 2021 coverage here.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.