Mickey Reece’s Agnes pretty immediately establishes itself as “not like the other exorcism movies.” The nuns of a convent are dining together when suddenly a young nun begins hurling insults and food at her sisters in a way that’s far more funny than horrifying.
We’re then introduced to older priest Frank Donaghue (Ben Hall) and deacon Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), who are tasked with traveling to the convent and performing an exorcism. Father Donaghue assisted another priest with a few exorcisms in the past so the Church thinks he’s the man for the job. But Donaghue himself thinks demonic possessions are “medieval woo woo.” He acknowledges that the exorcisms he participated in the past helped the supposedly possessed individuals, but he argues that this has more to do with the psychological power of faith to help the mentally ill than any real demons or heavenly powers.
It’s this type of honest consideration of faith and its place in the modern world that most characterizes Agnes. More than the surprising and sometimes absurd comedy, these discussions and genuine explorations of faith are what make Agnes different. Of course The Exorcist examined a priest’s crisis of faith using the genre trappings of horror, but The Exorcist is firmly a horror movie. Agnes is something much more unique.
The first half plays almost like a more over the top version of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, a dark comedy that follows a priest as he engages in alternately funny and disturbing conversations with his congregants, with small dashes of horror tossed in. But in its second half Agnes transforms into an almost dour exploration of the destructive power that grief can have on faith.
Most of the comedy in the first half comes from Father Donaghue butting heads with the Mother Superior (Mary Buss) over the propriety, or rather impropriety, of Benjamin’s presence in a convent and Donaghue’s methods of exorcism. Those methods include inviting an excommunicated priest who specializes in exorcisms, and having camera crews document the exorcisms, named Father Black (Chris Browning).
All three of these characters (Donaghue, the Mother Superior, and Father Black) are capital C characters, and the actors give them big performances to match. Buss’s expressions in particular often approach the work of Jim Carrey, and she delivers many of her lines with an eccentric rhythm to match her often bulging eyes and twisted mouth. Browning plays Black like an egotistical rock star lending the character equal charismatic sex appeal (full disclosure I may have a thing for men of the cloth) and off-putting overconfidence.
This comic tone makes the few moments of horror hit especially hard. The scares here seem to both function as and transcend the jump scare; the lead up is entirely dialogue driven without chaotic strings or ominous synths reaching a climax, but we can still feel them coming, and they still made me jump. They’re also surprisingly violent, as blood spurts out of wounds and faces are covered in blood.
That interplay of heightened genres mingled with the aforementioned thoughtful discussions of faith, makes the shift to a grounded drama concerned only with the relationship between faith and grief in the latter half jarring, but purposefully so. The film moves its focus to Mary (Molly C. Quinn), one of the sisters at the convent who is friends with the titular possessed Agnes, and her struggle with faith after losing her young son.
It’s a big swing, and I’m not sure that it entirely works, but Quinn makes Mary such a fully formed character that even if you began the film looking for a horror movie about exorcism, you become so invested in this young woman’s inner life that you are glued to the screen. It’s a remarkable bait and switch, and one that makes Agnes a film that lingers with you after it ends.
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