Ambitious Nun Horror Agnes Isn't Convent-ional or Entirely Successful

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Ambitious Nun Horror <i>Agnes</i> Isn't Convent-ional or Entirely Successful

Mickey Reece’s Agnes contains two films. One is a campy, pleasantly derivative exorcism romp. The other, a somber story about a young woman clinging to the cult-like trappings of a nunnery as a trauma response. The story is somewhat simple: Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) is summoned to a convent to perform an exorcism on an allegedly possessed nun, Agnes (Hayley McFarland). Watching the gory hubbub from the sidelines, Mary (Molly Quinn), Agnes’ friend and fellow sister, becomes increasingly agitated and disillusioned with her faith, and ends up leaving the practice. The second half of Agnes sees Mary working a dismal job at a supermarket and wrestling with her ever-waning faith.

At its midpoint, Agnes undergoes a sharp tonal shift, and regardless of the subject matter, that’s always a very tricky tightrope to traverse. What results isn’t entirely successful. Indeed, a number of the supporting performances are amateurish enough to make you wince, while flashy stylistic choices, such as a splashy graffiti-style title card and snazzy pop beats, end up being grating and confusing. But Agnes’ main problems don’t come from these misguided production choices. By pushing its first half to tonal extremes—likely in order to make for a memorable contrast against a bleaker (and much better) second half—the film’s tenor is far too disjointed to make any sense as a whole.

As soon as Mary leaves the convent, Reece seems to forget the first half of Agnes entirely. This is surprising, given the fact that the film seemed to be carefully gearing up toward a witty subversion of the overplayed haunted nunnery trope seen in films like The Nun and, most notably, Agnes of God, via its bizarre soundtrack choices and funny one-liners. (I did laugh out loud when Donaghue says “stick to the script,” and the camera zooms in on a Bible).

But the first half of the film ends up being largely anticlimactic (well, someone’s nose does get bitten off, but still) and when this storyline is left behind, it is really left behind—and an abundance of unanswered questions along with it. There is a question as to whether or not Agnes is actually possessed, or if her abbesses are merely projecting their fastidious cruelty onto the unwieldy young girl. There is a hint, too, that Agnes is faking her possession entirely in an attempt to escape the nunnery, but this possibility is not explored beyond a short conversation between herself and Mary. And then there’s the strange, lingering question of whether or not Donaghue sexually abused young boys. Alluding to the accusations and then never revisiting them is an odd choice, to say the least.

What’s so frustrating about these shortcomings is that the second half of Agnes really works. As soon as Mary steps foot outside of the convent, the film’s tone becomes chilling in its quietness and existentially harrowing in its mundanity. Mary spends most of her post-nun life either in the supermarket where she works, or in her bleak apartment. A life change that should have been cathartic ends up being even more oppressive than the convent.

Reece skillfully conveys Mary’s feelings of dread, guilt and melancholy following the convent. Where the first half feels unbridled and chaotic, the second shows an impressive amount of control and restraint. Mary’s world largely comprises wide-open, liminal spaces in the nighttime, which invoke limbo imagery. With the help of cinematographer Samuel Calvin, who primarily works on horror films, Reece nimbly isolates the protagonist by alternating between placing her in the center of wide frames, and shooting her in extreme, claustrophobic close-up. Quinn’s performance also helps harbor a sense of bubbling existential doom: With each soft, flickering expression, she embodies Mary as someone repressed by her faith, and experiencing an unrelenting emotional—and spiritual—tug-of-war.

Following a half-baked, trope-filled convent horror flick with a subdued reflection on it yields a partially successful inquiry into the realities of grief and religious trauma, and how those states of mind might materialize in the form of a farcical scary movie. In an earlier conversation with Agnes, Mary reveals that she had a small child who died, and the audience is led to assume that this was the reason she became a nun. In the outside world, Mary begins to adopt strange behaviors—likely as a delayed response to the trauma she has suppressed. Her actions recall Agnes’ possession, and inadvertently investigate possession as a trauma response—an allusion that isn’t considered enough in the film.

Still, the first act, alongside the glaring tonal disparities, hamstring Agnes into being a frustrating viewing experience: A film that so often gets so close to uncovering something great, only to step on its own feet again and again. The nun horror subgenre is a particularly difficult one to master because it is so overdone, and it inherently engages with so many ambitious themes. If you’re brave enough to tackle it, you’d better be sure you’re bringing something special to the table and, with it, have something substantial to say.

Director: Mickey Reece
Writers: Mickey Reece, John Selvidge
Stars: Molly Quinn, Hayley McFarland, Sean Gunn, Jake Horowitz, Ben Hall, Rachel True
Release Date: December 10, 2021

Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.