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{Tribeca Film Festival} Agnes – Review

Agnes will make you rethink all you know about the exorcism horror genre to offer a poignant reflection on female anger and grief.

In an almost period drama fashion, this pop exorcism movie opens with a lavish shot of sponge cake. Yet, it’s not Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette who tucks into this wobbly dessert. Someone far more sinister than an out-of-touch royal is about to disrupt the convent’s order.

Speaking to horror devotees and profanes alike, Agnes is set in a secluded catholic convent where something undeniably spine-chilling is taking place. As the sisters are about to sink their teeth into the long-anticipated pudding, the titular nun (Hayley McFarland) starts screaming obscenities and proceeds to engage in a food fight with them and the Mother Superior (Reece’s frequent collaborator Mary Buss).

Yet another exorcism horror movie? Not quite. Directed and co-written by Mickey Reece and presented at Tribeca Film Festival, Agnes checks most boxes of the exorcism genre and then flips the script on them. Consistently with Reece’s previous work, the undertone of Agnes, too, is caustic and comedic as well as genuinely unsettling. 

Under its nun’s habit, Agnes tackles faith and grief

This film’s first act is pure pop nunsploitation. Samuel Calvin’s somber cinematography and a lush, candy-colored title design turn a grim matter into stylish video clip material. Like black-clothed pop stars, the nuns speak out of sync and look straight into the camera in quirky, if a little disturbing, tableau vivant shots.

As the audience meets the concerned sisters, echoes of Agnes of God and Black Narcissus (one of the nuns is Sister Honey) reverberate throughout, overpowering the more obvious references in the demonic genre.

Sister Agnes is definitely furious, probably possessed, but can she be cured? Or rather, silenced? Her erratic state requires the attention and intervention of a trained exorcist. The diocese, uninterested in this bunch of bizarre women, sends Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) hoping he won’t succeed so they will have a reason to excommunicate him. Younger priest-to-be Ben (Jake Horowitz) tags along. A firm believer, he is likely to wreak havoc on the convent with his charisma and good looks.

One nun stands out in the group of sisters: Agnes’s sole real friend, pure-of-heart Mary (Molly C. Quinn, who also serves as producer). After losing her son, Mary has channeled her trauma into serving a god she’s not even sure might exist. Agnes’s supposed possession is the final nail in Mary’s wavering faith’s, setting the table for an unexpected second act.

Agnes and Mary bond over their trauma

Going for a two-act structure doesn’t mean that Agnes takes its possession lightly. The film deals with it in a canonical, terrifying first part involving profanity and cannibalism. 

“If you treat someone like an animal, they will act like an animal,” Father Donaghue argues of Agnes, belittling her history and erasing her humanity.

The only one seeing straight through Agnes’s possession is Mary. She and Agnes share a real, deep connection that sets them apart from the other sisters. They’ve bonded over their anger: explosive and feral that of Agnes; a time bomb awaiting detonation that of Mary. Through flashbacks and glimpses into another life, we see Mary and Agnes in a brighter, flickering light, sharing a smoke and a laugh away from the darkness of the convent.

“You have to bury the dead, Mary,” says Agnes, but her friend stubbornly refuses to process her trauma. Until the unspeakable happens. That’s when Reece’s film departs from a straight-up exorcism drama to cast a pitiless look at rural America.

An original take on the exorcism subgenre

Away from the austere, isolated convent, Mary finds an equally indifferent environment in the brighter, secular world. This overexposed new setting is populated by fleshed-out secondary characters. Like in a small-town fairytale, few helpers and many villains try to steer Mary, exploit her and understand her extremely private grief. Shining above them all, a cynical Sean Gunn shining in an unusual role that is pivotal to Mary’s angry awakening.

Including one of the most original, matter-of-fact arguments for the existence of a superior being, Agnes is an exciting take on the exorcism horror genre and boasts a beautifully restrained central performance from Quinn. Navigating two very different realms, this antiheroine realizes that our heaviest crosses never really leave our backs. We simply learn how to bear them, and it’s hardly ever in a graceful manner.