FANTASIA ‘21: ‘Agnes’ Is A Tonal Rollercoaster Where Your Expectations Are A Detriment

Still from 'Agnes'.  A group of nuns stand facing the camera, all in traditional high white and black habits.
Courtsey of Fantasia Film Festival

“You know, I don’t really believe in this medieval woo woo” says Father Donahue (Ben Hall), the Catholic priest who has been called to an isolated convent to perform an exorcism on the titular young nun Agnes (Hayley McFarland), who has started having outbursts of growling, speaking in tongues and calling her fellow nuns whores and, the classic possessed movie insult, “cocksucker”. The film isn’t so much poking fun at or parodying the religious horror genre, but rather taking us on a different ride; injecting the genre with campy fun and an almost Yorgos Lanthimos-esque stylistic edge.

The composition is beautiful, with Wes Anderson-like group shots that highlight the deadpan absurdity, and the dialogue is engaging and fun and enhanced by the actors’ dry delivery. Director and writer Mickey Reece is always pushing the boundaries of genre and his own filmic style and here he engages all aspects of filmmaking to make the possession movie fun, like quick dramatic zooms in quiet scenes and unexpected needle drops.

Agnes does, however, have a muddled and inconsistent tone. There are moments of comedy and horror, seriousness and drollery, yet without a  common thread it can feel jarring and disjointed, especially when the quieter, dramatic moments have so much less energy. In the first half, the film just feels like a beautiful and fun yet muddled take on the religious horror genre. By working from within the bounds of iconic possession movie moments and cliches and disrupting them from there, the film feels familiar. We feel we know fairly confidently where this story is going. However, these moments completely dissolve in the second half into a surprising character drama that reflects  on grief and trauma. 

In a narrative switch that induces tonal whiplash, Reece suddenly turns his camera to the quiet friend of Agnes and fellow nun Mary (Molly C. Quinn), following her day to day life after she leaves the church following the events surrounding Agnes’ possession.. The expectations of it’s marketing as an off-beat nun-based horror might be a detriment to its reception, with the harder emotional beats of the second half falling flat because the film has not put the character exploration work in to have any sort of emotional pay-off. However, what reveals itself is definitely an ambitious and quiet study of trauma; the non-linear narrative unfolds in an engaging, compelling way and the second half’s lead Molly C. Quinn is totally mesmerising and a magnetic anchor.  

There is, however, a mystery central to Agnes that feels like the only thing pushing the second half’s narrative forward, and the only thing compelling us to carry on watching, but it is let down by an ending that feels abrupt and unfinished with everything previously built up in the first half of the film left hanging.

Agnes is capricious and tonally chaotic, it feels like a film that wants to be and do so much and therefore can’t commit to any of it fully. Although Agnes might not succeed fully in what it aims to do, at least it is exciting, and makes for a great addition to the Fantasia line-up with its unexpected genre blending and Reece’s undoubtable direction. 

Agnes enjoyed its International Premiere at Fantasia Festival 2021

by Madeleine Sinclair

Madeleine (she/her) is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s LabyrinthThe Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.

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