By Naomi Roper
“I’ll Always Be With You”
Agnes by director Mickey Reece (who also co-writes with John Selvidge) is very much a film of two halves. The first is a blacker than night, exuberantly gothic re-telling of the age-old demonic possession story. Sisters in a secluded convent are horrified when one night at dinner Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland, The Conjuring) starts spouting invectives at her fellow sisters (“You’re all whores of Christ“) and behaving violently. The Diocese calls upon Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) to perform an exorcism of Agnes. He has a history of performing exorcisms despite not actually believing in any of it. Father Donaghue is also a suspected paedophile with Reece challenging his audience immediately by making his charming, weathered leading man someone truly despicable. Donaghue brings along his very green and very handsome protege Benjamin (Jake Horowitz, The Vast of Night) who has yet to take his vows. In the midst of all this madness is Sister Mary (Molly C Quinn, Castle) who was great friends with Agnes.
Halfway through the movie does an abrupt tonal shift as we switch from the baroque excesses of demonic possession to a sombre, slow character study of Mary who has left the sisterhood. Mary has lost her faith. She’s swapped a vow of poverty for actual poverty and swapped upholding the patriarchal rules of the Diocese for a reality where her ability to have a job and home is ruled by predatory men who want more from her than she is willing to give.
Upon first watch, my initial reaction was to question why we couldn’t have a whole movie set in the convent. After all, that section is enormous fun. McFarland has a riot as the possessed Agnes while Ben Hall delights in making the audience uncomfortable as you struggle with how much you should really be rooting for Father Donaghue. It’s obscene watching the Diocese in their gilded mansion surrounded by beautiful furnishings glibly discussing how to deal with the accusations against Father Donaghue. They have no interest in obtaining justice for his victims. No far easier to quietly send him away overseas. Benjamin’s first reaction to the news isn’t to think of the poor boys whose lives Father Donaghue has ruined but is instead concern for his own personal safety. Watching the priests cackle while reassuring Benjamin that as a grown man he’ll be perfectly fine is eviler than anything the possessed Agnes could do.
Is Agnes truly possessed? Or is she just reflecting the immense cruelty of those around her? The Mother Superior (Mary Buss) treats Agnes with little humanity and shows no compassion for anyone denouncing Sister Mary as a whore for going without her headscarf for a minute. Mother Superior is quite content to host Father Donaghue (and her fellow sisters swoon over him) but can’t mask her disgust over what he is. But she welcomes him with open arms into god’s house anyway. Chris Browning has a hilarious cameo as Father Black – a man who has turned demonic possession into a money-making scheme. Agnes is rightly disgusted at the hypocrisy of all of them.
The convent section is a riot and the long, slow indie drama of Mary losing her faith and hooking up with a comedian (a sadly miscast Sean Gunn who just comes across as too decent for the role) is not fun. It is dour and sad and something of a downer.
But this isn’t a movie about demonic possession. This is a movie about trauma. About how it never leaves you. Trauma can be hidden, it can be buried but it never ever goes away. Mary tried to bury her trauma. She buried it in a nun’s habit and she hid from it by hiding herself away from the world but it never left her. And when her faith leaves her the trauma eats her alive from within. Quinn is superb as the grieving, deeply traumatised Mary struggling to work out what she wants from the world and how she can live in it. Agnes tells Mary “We have to bury our dead” but Mary isn’t there yet. The end sequence of her re-connecting with Father Benjamin (who has now taken his vows) as they talk about faith is deeply moving.
Agnes is an unusual, uneven film. A study of trauma cloaked in the trappings of a gothic horror about demonic possession. The tonal switch is a challenge as the movie switches from baroque high camp to a downbeat indie but Molly C Quinn’s portrayal of Mary is strong enough to withstand the tonal whiplash.
Agnes is available to watch on-demand at the Fantasia International Film Festival.