Agnes is very much a film of two distinct halves. This horror-thriller mixture — directed by Mickey Reece — puts a new and refreshing spin on the well-trodden narrative ground of exorcisms, possession, and religion. Its first half is sharp, tense, but wryly funny and charming too — but its second, more introspective half, slightly lets down the experience as a whole.
Despite being called Agnes, Hayley McFarland's aggrieved nun isn't really the focus of Reece's film. The first half places Agnes in the shoes of horror icons like Regan MacNeil before her, as she is possessed by a malevolent spirit. She spews profanities, bites, spits and lunges. It's the sort of Satan-based horror we've come to know from films like The Exorcist, or more recently, Saint Maud. The film then cuts to several months later, looking at the staggering aftermath of these events through the lens of Mary (Molly C. Quinn) — a nun from Agnes' chapter who becomes jaded with religion and looks for a life after such traumatic events. It's a bold narrative decision, exploring the impact and hidden consequences that most horror films leave to post-credit reflection from their audience.
The good news is that as an exorcism-based horror, there aren't many better than Agnes. It very clearly takes cues from Friedkin's 1970s classic The Exorcist, but builds on it in interesting ways. Something like the gender politics of the church is acutely explored here, as two male pastors — the seedy crooked Father Donoghue (Ben Hall) and Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) — stay at the coven to help cure Agnes. The way this event rocks an all-female religious community is genuinely fascinating to see, as is the screenplay's attempts to touch upon sexual abuse within the church; a concept screenwriters Reese and John Selvidge sadly don't explore to its fullest extent.
What Agnes excels in is building tension. The opening sequence, as Agnes first shows signs of demonic possession, creates a perpetual state of uneasiness, where the threat of Satanic interference threatens to rock this religious haven at any given moment. At times you're truly hooked on every word, and in the first half, Agnes is relentless in keeping you on your toes. It's delightfully self-aware, too: Donoghue at one point says “don't worry, I've seen this a few times,” in a not-so-subtle nod to the history of exorcism on film.
It's a shame, then, that Agnes‘ second half isn't able to keep up this momentum. It takes a mournful, more epilogue-style approach, following Mary as she comes to terms with what she witnessed at the coven, and tries to make something of her life after it. It's a segment of the film that feels — both tonally and thematically — diametrically opposite to what came before. Large swathes are dedicated to her fledgling friendship with a local comedian, played coolly by Sean Gunn. It's an interesting switch in momentum, for sure, but one that doesn't feel tonally consistent with the sheer horror of what came before it. These moments perhaps lack the necessary focus, and while there's some interesting commentary on life after religion, the film never quite gets the exploration it truly needs.
It leaves Agnes as an undeniable must-watch for horror fans, especially those who pray at the altar of The Exorcist. To note once more, the film will leave you wanting slightly more. The second half just needed to be leaner and more focused — instead leaving us with an acerbic exorcist story, and a somewhat meandering reflection on the preceding horror at hand.
Agnes screened at this year's Fantasia Film Festival, as part of the Camera Lucida section. The film is currently seeking international distribution