A young nun in a convent suddenly finds herself exhibiting the traits of demonic possession, forcing the church to call in a grizzled and bitter priest and his priest-to-be student to handle it. Sounds familiar, right? It's anything but. From the jump, it's clear that Mickey Reece's Agnes is doing a lot with very little, and that minimalist charm remains especially as the movie shifts into its surprising second half. What begins with what some might consider a traditional possession movie, Agnes has more up its sleeve than the average exorcism picture and that is largely due to its unique characters and whip-smart script.
Reece crafts a world that feels lived in and immediately rejects the pop-culture aesthetic of possession stories when one of his lead characters, Ben Hall's Father Donaghue, makes it clear that he thinks it's nonsense despite a clear track record in the church. Tagging alongside him, though, is Jake Horowitz (fresh off of Amazon's The Vast of Night) as Benjamin, a priest in training that is constantly worried he's in over his head. That the opening of the film would have you believe these are your leads, their placement in the story is one of many rug-pulls that Reece has up his sleeve. These two are just part of Agnes' cast, but I'd be remiss to not give a special shout-out to Zandy Hartig as Sister Honey, who has one the best line readings in the film.
Hall and Horowitz do tremendous work, but producer/star Molly C. Quinn takes the focus in the second half and makes the movie hers. Though a supporting player in the early possession segment of the story, Quinn's Sister Mary finds herself the subject of an intense portrayal of loss and empathy. Told through the frame of her character's questioning within and outside of the church, it's a universal story of being directionless, albeit with some added demonic possession for some fun on the big screen.
On the whole, though, Agnes is a horror movie about losing faith, in your beliefs, yourself, your God, whatever you thought you knew and held close, yet which showed itself to be something else. In the same way that Friedkin's The Exorcist, the godfather of the subgenre, had a character struggling with his faith, Reece's Agnes is a portrait about that loss as well. Unlike the 1973 classic, Agnes takes its portrayal into the realm of intimacy rather than exploitation. Comparisons to that film or even other possession movies released this year could no doubt be made, but Agnes' ability to do a lot with little while remaining captivating is one of its greatest qualities.
What Reece has crafted are two halves of a story that feel alien from each other when considering the pieces individually, but which work together as two sides of the same coin when all is said and done. Much of the second half of the film feels banal in a way where the individual pieces don't add up until the whole half of the story is present. That this works at all is a testament to Reece's patience and interests as a storyteller.
Though perhaps never what the audience expects, Agnes makes for a very rich, moving, surprising, and often funny feature. Those hoping to find the next cheap scare a la The Last Exorcism or something bombastic like The Exorcism of Emily Rose will not find it here, but Agnes has more to offer as a meditation and as an exercise in patience than any other movie that treads into this type of narrative. It's not going to be for everyone, but it will have something to say for all that follow it.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Agnes screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival and does not yet have wide a release date.