FANTASTIC FEST: Agnes (2021)

In the time that you’ll read this, Mickey Reece may have already made a new movie. For four years in a row, he’s had a debut at Fantastic Fest. You may have seen his Climate of the Hunter a year or so ago — time no longer makes sense, so it could have been months — and the first moments of this movie seem to rail against the slow boil of that movie by starting with a profane cake throwing rant by its titular character, Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland, The Conjuring).

For the first half of this film, I was fairly riveted by a tale that combined the Byzantine — or Roman, right? — politics of the Catholic Church as it struggles in the dawn of a new century, even as the possessions that defined the old church and the exorcisms that became pop culture decades ago rear their head again.

As she serves at St. Theresa’s convent — which remains rooted in the old ways of the church, with nuns not allowed to leave the grounds and men being limited — she finds herself in the grip of something demonic. But what has she done other than upset the natural order and asked her fellow sisters to confront who they are? Well, yeah, and foam at the mouth. One could arhue that Mother Superior (Mary Buss) is the real power destroying the lives of these women.

Father Donahue (Ben Hall) has been selected by the powers that be — he was sure they’d caught on to his secrets and crimes — to exorcise the demon that he doesn’t believe in, bringing along an acolyte named Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) who is the one person in the film that seems actually close to the divine. Donahue continually harangues the young not-yet-a-priest, demanding that he look into his heart to determine whether or not God offers him the life he really wants to live. This is an interesting take — the priest at the end of his road and the young man just starting his first steps.

But like much of this film, it’s a fleeting notion. Donahue’s half-hearted exorcism ends with his nose being bitten off and blood covering everyone, leaving him no choice but to call in Father Black (Chris Browning), an excommunicated priest who has created his own cult of personality, complete with him being bound to the demon Bune — who in the Lesser Key of Solomon we learn is a duke of Hell with the ability to move the dead, make people rich and answer a variety of questions — and a beehive-hairdo-having, chain-smoking henchwoman who really deserves her own movie. If this entire moment of the film feels like it came straight out of El Dia de la Bestia that’s a compliment.

Just like every man in this movie, his exorcism is pretty ineffectual and feels cobbled together from every Italian ripoff of The Exorcist, such as Enter the Devil and The Return of the Exorcist. And then, when all seems lost, the film dissolves and becomes an entirely different film after Agnes and Mary (Molly C. Quinn, We’re the Millers) have a moment that’s more arthouse than Alucarda and suddenly the film becomes her story, cast down from a world of faith into the magicless world that we live in today, a place where hack comedians (Sean Gunn) let you down, where bosses demand sexual favors in the stockroom of grocery stores, where rent goes up, where even a demonic voice and being possessed yourself can barely change things. However, the return of Benjamin, now a full brother in Christ, may give her the faith — or at least a momentary respite — that she needs.

There’s a theme of losing love — a lover, a child — and having to turn to God even to discover that that may not be enough that runs through this movie. But the narrative shift and the lack of focus near the end of the film — it gives up on a been there, done that exorcism story with some new wrinkles to, well, tell another story that feels like we’ve been told before — damn the efforts.

It looks great. It sounds amazing. But I get the feeling that by the end, Reece was already bored and thinking about what he was going to make next instead of finishing this one off. It’s so disappointingly close to a movie that I’d tell people to watch but you can’t make a recommendation like “watch the first forty minutes” or “fast forward a bunch” because that’s not a recommendation, it’s a litany of excuses.

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