Mickey Reece’s latest eases you into a darkly comic take on the typical possession film, before turning an ambitious 180 into more solemn territory.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.
Oklahoma City-based filmmaker Mickey Reece is as idiosyncratic as he is prolific; Agnes is his twenty-fifth movie in the past decade. And like his previous films (Mickey Reece’s Alien, Climate of the Hunter), it’s just as hard to categorize. Step into Agnes totally unfamiliar, and you might expect the typical possession-horror endemic of something like The Nun or, well, the obvious nod to Agnes of God. But right from its opening minutes, Agnes sets itself apart with a winningly dark humor; wait even longer still, and its halfway point will surprise you even further.
It’s not long into Reece’s film before we see young Agnes (Hayley McFarland) start growling, speaking in tongues, and cursing out her fellow sisters at an isolated convent; she may be possessed. One of the only priests who can take the job of exorcising the demon from poor Agnes is Father Donaghue (Ben Hall), an older priest already on the outs with the church for his growing cynicism; paired with a young, fervent priest in training named Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), the two set out to the convent to free Agnes’ soul.
For its first half, Agnes follows the formula of the possession thriller, albeit with a kind of Lanthimos-ian jaundice; Hall and his costars lean into the dry humor of the piece with every jolting musical sting and cutaway to a stuffed animal on the wall of a parish office. Eventually, a slicker, more TV-friendly exorcist named Father Henry Black (Chris Browning) arrives to try to save the day, with his red leather three-piece suit. It’s all very droll and quietly effective.
But for all the attention Agnes receives as the woman in desperate need of saving, there’s another sister in need of more earthly counseling. At about the forty-five minute mark, Reece abruptly swings the camera around to focus on Mary (Molly C. Quinn), Agnes’ close friend and fellow nun, who flees the church in the wake of the day’s events. The two women are linked by a close friendship marked by tremendous loss they still can’t quite shake — for Agnes, it’s a lover she left before she joined the convent; for Mary, it’s the death of her son. “You have to bury the dead, Mary,” Agnes tells Mary, in some of her final earthly words. It’s a sentiment she takes to heart; after the exorcism is done, she flees the church, and Reece ambitiously flips Agnes on a dime into a moody character drama about Mary’s post-church life.
It’s a heel-turn so comprehensive it’ll give you whiplash, and yet mysteriously it aids, rather than clashes, with the Ken Russell-ian camp of Agnes’ first half. In the convent, Reece zeroes acutely into the hermetically-sealed power dynamics of the church and the nunnery as a whole; outside influences, even Father Donaghue and Benjamin, are treated as threats and temptations the girls can’t deal with. But as Mary attempts to return to secular life, she finds herself isolated and alone in more mundane, existential ways: her time as a nun leaves her unprepared for the chaos of the outside world, made worse by her shaken faith.
What’s more, Mary shares her sense of isolation with the people she runs across, most notably a doe-eyed stand-up comic (Sean Gunn) who used to date Agnes before she left to serve God. In both halves of the film, Quinn is mesmerizing: mannered and awkward, yet soulful and experienced in ways befitting the many contradictions of the character. She’s a babe in the woods, yet deeply wounded by events too horrifying to contemplate. Through her, Reece searches for answers to how we can survive such a harsh, unfeeling world: faith can let us escape it for a while, but it can also keep us from maintaining those tenuous connections we might have otherwise.
Agnes’s tonal swings may not work for everyone, and its shagginess can even disorient the most engaged viewer. But Reece isn’t one to shy away from experimentation and has a daringly crisp visual eye (aided by Samuel Calvin’s precise, textured cinematography) to ease us through Reece’s journey from Black Narcissus to The Crying Game. “How do we know God?” asks Mary late in the film; it’s a question that cuts to the heart of Agnes‘ astonishing tonal turn. Where do we find our purpose in a world that so aggressively denies it to us?