From CBS’s series Evil to the third installment in The Conjuring franchise, religious horror hasn’t shied from the spotlight this year. Director Mickey Reece in Agnes works against the typical structure of the religious horror film by creating a vehicle with an unusual stick-shift set to three distinct gears.
The film first seems to center on a priest named Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) and his student and soon-to-be-priest Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) who arrive at a convent to conduct an exorcism on the eponymous nun Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland). After traumatic events befall the spectators of the exorcism at the film’s halfway point, Agnes’s best friend Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn) decides to leave the convent and attempt to live a normal life.
Agnes is, in the end, three different movies pieced together to make an uneven whole. There’s Film A, where we have Father Donaghue and Benjamin’s story, which is a straightforward horror drama with the usual trappings of the genre. We then have Film B, which is the exaggerated comedic plot that uses disjointed editing and costuming choices to signal a satirical approach to the events of the story. Film B is only present in the first half of the movie, poking fun in particular at the convent environment. Once Mary strikes out alone, the film discards comedy for more realism. Film C about Mary’s post-convent life is pensive, investigative, and left me wanting more of it.
Although the shifts in tone and approach throughout the film are not necessarily bad creative ideas, they don’t come together to create a satisfying ensemble. The shift between the two halves in particular is an interesting set-up and is somewhat similar to Room (2015) and its use of the before-and-after timeline of Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack’s (Jacob Tremblay) escape from their suffocating room. Agnes, however, doesn’t quite set up enough themes and characterizations in the first half to create cohesive throughlines into the second half. Things the beginning introduces seem to be dropped in favour of other ideas.
The film does explore some interesting concepts more fully, however, the most prominent of which is a critique of manipulative and abusive men. Father Donaghue is a confessed pedophile who the Church plans to move to another country after the exorcism, while Mary’s retail boss Curly (Chris Sullivan) tries to exploit her poverty for sexual favours and pressures her when she says no. Even Paul (Sean Gunn), Agnes’s ex-boyfriend, is opportunistic as her teacher, saying he normally didn’t date students but made an “exception” for her. The supposed demon aggresses against these men, including sketchy ex-priest Father Black who comes across as a hack televangelist. Although it isn’t fully clear if these are moral punishments or simply men being in the wrong places at the wrong times, it still presents a portrait of how men can often make others vulnerable, both inside and outside the Church.
It’s also possible to view the entire film as rooted in the concept of “bad faith,” both literally and idiomatic. Father Donaghue doesn’t believe in exorcisms (he’s got “bad” faith) but he performs the exorcism anyway, pretending to believe in it (and therefore operates in the idiom of “bad faith”). Father Black’s approach to exorcisms is also suspect, and Curly pretends to be warm and generous but has ulterior motives. The film is far less interested in demonic possession or the possible presence of God than it is with the individual choices of normal people, both good and bad. Agnes is at its best when it does ask questions about God. Although such theologizing could fall flat, the film at times pushes hard on its religious tones to offer some bittersweet reflections.
Agnes might not make for the best cinematic structure, but it will appeal to folks looking for a change-up from both horror and dramedies. Although it’ll be a pass for folks seeking a more cohesive, immersive film experience, Agnes certainly adds something new and unexpected to the expansive subgenre of religious horror, and will especially interest feminist fans of that tradition.
Agnes will be available on VOD and in select theatres on December 10.
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter