starring Chris Browning, Mary Buss, Sean Gunn, Ben Hall
written by Mickey Reece & John Selvidge
directed by Mickey Reece
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by Walter Chaw Agnes (Hayley McFarland) and Mary (Molly Quinn) are young nuns at the tightly-run convent of Mother Superior (Mary Buss). The two are friends, and they both have terrible stories about their lives before they, separately, sought out this place--less, we think, from a desire to be wed to the Almighty than to find shelter from the sorrows of the big, wide world outside. One night, Agnes calls all of the other sisters "whores" over dinner while the table shakes and a coffee cup hovers around. Of course they strap her to her bed and call Rome, and of course Rome responds by sending an old/young priest pair in Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) and soon-to-be Father Ben (Jake Horowitz). Trouble is, Father Donaghue has been recently accused of being a pederast (a charge he has not denied), while Father Ben has just passed his coordination period as Deacon and is not nearly prepared enough to be in the company of an entire nunnery, much less perform an exorcism. They're being set up for failure. Perhaps Father Donaghue dying during an exorcism will save the Bishop the trouble of transferring him to an unsuspecting diocese.
After the exorcism fails spectacularly, Agnes switches its focus to some time in the future, when Mary, having left the sisterhood, tries to make it without support. She works double shifts at a terrible drugstore cashier job, where she's sexually harassed by her creepy boss (Chris Sullivan) to pay for an overpriced apartment in a rough part of town. I don't think the picture ever mentions "exorcism" again. Really, its resolve not to do so is pointed. The cracks in Mary's carefully-composed stoicism gradually widen. She runs into someone from her friend Agnes's past, starts giggling, and can't seem to stop. There's a little blood, but we get the feeling there will be more. Agnes is still a horror movie after it stops being an exorcism movie because I'm not convinced it ever really stops being an exorcism movie. Mary is possessed by her past. It has her, and she can't shake it. As Agnes progresses, she's possessed by Agnes's past as well. Everything rises that was submerged, there's no escape; it colours everything in time. How it colours it is dependant on the degree to which a person confronts it--"casts it out," as it were--or doesn't and lets it fester in the underneath instead.
Reece has made over 30 films in the last 13 years. He's a kitchen-sinker with a strong sense of where to put the camera, bolstered by a wry, unpredictable sense of humour and a company of performers game for the challenge of sticking the landing. His last film, Climate of the Hunter, is a minor stunner of a revisionist vampire movie, incisive about the kinds of hunger that drive those stories. Smart, sure, but fun as well: self-referential and irreverent. Agnes achieves a similar feat for the possession picture, subverting the base convention of mortification of a young woman's body to have a greater conversation about how women in society are victimized for their youth. It's no wonder this exorcism fails, since all exorcisms fail: the demon is hardwired into us. During a television appearance, a roguish celebrity priest named Father Black (Chris Browning) reveals that he was called to be an exorcist when, as a child, his sister was possessed. He goes on to share that she's still possessed, and the family's finally welcomed the demon into their lives. The temptation will be to declare that Agnes is two films when really it's just one extraordinarily clever, unimpeachably ethical treatise on sexual repression, spiritual isolation, and the profound loneliness that derives from it. It's so good.