POOR AGNES (2017)
Directed by Navin Ramaswaran
Written by James Gordon Ross
Starring Lora Burke, Karen Scobie, Amy Marie Wallace, Robert Notman, Will Conlon, Rodney Dwira, Stan Alto, Neil Paterson, Philip Contardo, Dennis Austin, Kate Alice Phillips
Find out more about this film here, @pooragnes, and on Facebook here
Stockholm Syndrome is a real thing and something that has been addressed recently in THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (reviewed here) and THE BERLIN SYNDROME, as well as recent news of people being converted to become a terrorist or being reprogrammed by a church for being gay. Any time someone has their own free will taken from them and replaced by someone else’s does not sit well with me. It’s the reason I am not a big fan of religion and not a big fan of people blindly following everything to do with one political party. It’s also the reason I am not a big fan of the torture porn subgenre of film that ran rampant through the oughts. POOR AGNES is not torture porn, but it definitely is going to give you that icky feeling I described above. But it does this in a provocative way that’ll make you think and want to talk about afterwards.
Agnes (Lora Burke) is a serial killer. She lives a structured and solitary life alone in a house on the edge of town. And occasionally when her feelings of entitlement and rancor towards men flows over, she goes out, finds a man, and murders him. Mike (Robert Notman) is a detective and not a good one, but he is able to track down a link between a missing man and Agnes. When he visits her house, Mike spends the afternoon interviewing Agnes and finds her to be attractive and even asks her out. This leads to a quickie in the kitchen, followed by Ages quickly leaving the room and returning with a shotgun, ordering Mike to lay on the ground. Thinking this is part of some kind of roleplay, Mike obliges, but is shocked to find himself drugged and bound in Agnes’ basement. Anges informs Mike that he now has no name, he is a horrible man, and is now her slave. The rest of the film is about Mike’s struggle to get out of Agnes’ grip. Even after she has broken his will and sets his free, Mike is beholden to Agnes and unable to do anything but what she tells him to do. When Anges brings home a new victim, Mike’s dedication to Anges is challenged culminating in a final confrontation between master and slave.
At its core, POOR AGNES is a depiction of a typical master/slave relationship and how someone can let go of who they are in an abusive relationship. What sets this film apart from the herd is that it is a film that reverses the roles by having Agnes adopt the abusive role and Mike playing the sheepish slave. This is a tough film to watch because of this gender switch, but it also makes it such a compelling film to watch. We rarely see the roles reversed in this way in films and if we do, it’s done for comic effect. POOR AGNES is definitely not a comedy, though it might make some chuckle a bit in order to cover up feeling of discomfort. The way Agnes breaks down everything that makes Mike a man is horrific and while there are some pretty heinous murders and some intense gore at times, the real terror comes in the psychological abuse Agnes doles out and how Mike simply takes it. This is even amplified later on in the film when a new victim is taken and the new victim can’t wrap his head around why Mike is so devoted to Agnes. It’s the typical abusive parter scenario amped to murderous levels. Viewed from the outside, it is simple and should be easy to walk away from. But in the relationship, it’s much murkier and darker.
If there’s a fault to POOR AGNES, there really isn’t a lot of time dedicated to the breaking of Mike. I know that might have pushed the film a little more on the edge of being torture porn, but there is a six month leap in time that really isn’t communicated until later that makes Mike’s transition from free willed person to doting abusee more jarring. A montage or even a hint of what Agnes puts Mike through might have made this transition a little more believable. Most likely it was an artistic decision to shy away from the torture and focus more on the free-will-less Mike after he is broken, but a few short scenes might have made it all feel more natural.
The feeling of being a victim is conveyed expertly well here through the beta male exemplified performance by Robert Notman who really does make you want to punch him by the time the film is over with. Because he puts up with so much, it really is hard to sympathize with him (again, I think this is because not a lot of his six month ordeal is shown on screen). And despite playing an utterly diabolical, narcissistic, and nasty character, the star making performance in this film goes to Lora Burke as Agnes. Through inner monologue and discourse she has with Mike, we see a fully fleshed out psychopath. We feel her rage and resentment, and even understand the confusion she may feel as it really seems like every time Mike cracks through to the human side of her, she responds with violence towards him. Seeing these little cracks in her psycho armor is what makes this such an arduous, but satisfying film, as Agnes is not able to keep her own weakness under wraps as well as she thinks she does. As is, POORT AGNES is an intellectually demanding film with a powerhouse of a performance by Burke. It’ll make you wince, squirm, and most importantly, think.