Advance Review: Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend!
Directed by Mickey Reece.
Written by Mickey Reece, John Selvidge..
Starring Molly C. Quinn, Sean Gunn, Hayley McFarland, Chris Browning, Rachel True, Jake Horowitz, Zandy Hartig, Ben Hall, Bruce Davis, Ginger Gilmartin, Mary Buss, Chris Freihofer, Cait Brasel, Rita Scranton, Jacob Ryan Snovel, Van Quattro, Cheryl McConnell, Alex Sanchez, Thashana McQuiston, Ebony Guesby, Azrial Greene-Pina
Premiering this weekend at Tribeca is AGNES, an extremely different kind of possession film.
When a young nun named Agnes (Hayley McFarland) appears to be possessed, the convent sends word to the Vatican to allow for an exorcism. They decide to send an unconventional priest Father Donaghue (CLIMATE OF THE HUNTER’s Ben Hall) and his protégé Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) to analyze the situation and perform an exorcism if one is needed. The exorcism doesn’t go as planned.
I don’t want to reveal much more of AGNES as I feel you’re most likely never going to see a possession film quite like AGNES and I wouldn’t want to ruin the experience for you. It is extremely unconventional and bizarre. The tone is all over the place and the imagery used has the look and feel of many other types of films, yet AGNES still maintains its own unique edge. While characterizing priests as normal, flawed, and sometimes kooky people isn’t new, AGNES takes it to a whole new level. In THE EXORCIST III, Father Dyer (played by Ed Flanders) is shown telling off-color jokes, speaking loosely, and acting quite unpriest-like. Still he maintained the dignity of the job. In AGNES, Father Donaghue takes things a step further and is downright inappropriate at times, all done to humanize him in ways you most likely haven’t seen before. Sure this causes quite the too-doo with the nuns at the convent, but it also makes his character a blast to follow. Seeing him bungle his way through the exorcism is a thing of beauty, highlighting actor Ben Hall’s unique and genius comic timing. Hall had a standout performance as the enigmatic neighbor in Reece’s film from last year, CLIMATE OF THE HUNTER, and gives an equally excellent performance in AGNES.
But that’s not the end of the quirkiness. For much of the first half of AGNES, it felt as if this were a possession film directed by Wes Anderson. Not only does the film utilize Anderson’s obsessive tendency to center the image in frame dramatically and intentionally, but also his use of slo-mo to accentuate the importance of the scene in an ironic and farcical manner. There’s a scene set to heavy synth beats where Father Donoghue, Benjamin, and the nuns make their way down the hall in slo-mo on their way to the exorcism that had me rolling. Earlier scenes where the nuns speak to the camera and strike cool poses on the church steps again highlights a sense of humor one wouldn’t associate with the staunch way the religious are depicted on screen. In the first half, everything, even the possessed person herself, is presented with a tongue firmly planted in cheek. There was a constant barrage of ludicrous and hilarious imagery that I wasn’t expecting and I laughed a lot at the way religion is presented through the eyes of filmmaker Mickey Reece, who definitely apes the style of other filmmakers here, but manages to be a unique force behind the camera all his own.
AGNES takes a huge tonal shift at the halfway point as we catch up with another nun at the convent, Mary (Molly C. Quinn) who herself was deeply affected by the exorcism that took place at the convent. This shift in tone and focus is jarring and I believe will be the point where it may lose some of the audience because gone is the stylized camerawork and quirky humor. It turns much more into a drama at this point, focusing on Mary’s troubles as she attempts to leave the convent behind and find a new life. It is a bold storytelling move on Reece and his co-writer John Selvidge’s part, leaving Mary, Father Donaghue, and the convent behind to tell a new chapter in a different setting with a different central figure, but it only adds another layer to the unruly nature of Reece’s film, as if the rules shucked away centering on religion in the first half transform to a dismissal of what is to be expected in the story itself. This tonal switch was jarring and took a while to get used to, but ultimately, by the time the story ended—not with an exorcism, but with a theological conversation, I was pleasantly surprised at the restraint and creativity put into it.
But I guarantee the halfway point is where folks will throw their hands up in the air and give up on AGNES. I get it. We are used to a specific way to receive a story and when someone gets creative with the way information and story is doled out, it’s a hard pill to swallow. For me, AGNES is a wonderfully vibrant and fresh take on the possession genre. While the tone changes, there is a thematic thru-way as the film shifts gears from Agnes to Mary and those willing to look past the exterior will notice it.
The film is populated with some amazing performances. AGNES is filled with actors you might remember from other films as well as faces you’re bound to see more of. Molly C. Quinn is restrained and dignified, yet still dazzles in the role of Mary. Sean Gunn offers up a much more serious character here as a stand-up comedian that shows he’s more than just James Gunn’s bro and all goofs and sight gags. Jake Horowitz is great as the soon-to-be priest who is shocked at Father Donoghue’s actions, yet seems to be taking notes as to how he will handle the role in the future. And shrewd eyes will catch THE CRAFT’s Rachel True as one of the nuns, many of which offer up some downright hilarious moments.
Just be prepared for watching something you’ve never seen before. I often go on about the unshakable conventions of the exorcism/possession film as all of them can’t seem to move past the cliches made iconic in THE EXORCIST. AGNES is the first possession/exorcism film that shakes the subgenre of horror to its foundations and will leave you shocked at what you have seen. Drama supersedes the horror by the time the horror credits roll, but AGNES still left me with a smile that there are filmmakers out there like Mickey Reece willing to still take chances with their films. While this film will most likely cause devout hearts to flutter, if you’re in the mood for something wholly different, ANGES will definitely compel you.
Is this more inline with the new wave of artistic horror? I’m talking Babadook, It Follows, Hereditary, Midsommar, The VVitch? Some of these high brow horror films leave most audiences divided, including myself. Curious to see your answer.
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If you get a chance, watch Climate of the Hunter on Shudder. Same director. It’s got a bit of an obtuse ending and feels like it borrows from Wes Anderson and David Lynch. Still the plot is followable but not predictable.
Caught Climate.. I see what you mean with Wes Anderson and David Lynch. I went back and saw you were a fan of the film, and I can’t agree or disagree. It’s tough when you want to be “Everything to Everyone” cause when you attempt that- you lose, ( Dr. Sleep comes to mind- Did Flanagan want to appease the Kubrick fans or the King fans? Let’s do both!!). At times Climate is a 60’s-70’s New Wave Art Film, at times I feel like I’m watching a Hammer Film, The tone, ( for me ), was off. Sometimes you gotta pick a lane. Filmed incredibly well, performance were good.. Just didn’t know what it wanted to be for me. Keep the reviews coming Mark!
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Yeah, I think you’ll probably feel the same way about Agnes. There is a lot of talent there, but there’s an artsy-ness that can be off putting to some.
Mark- you gonna be at Flashback this year? If so, you hosting any panel discussions? This year might be weakest lineup in recent memory, ( Thanks Covid ), but it’s always a good time. I think a fellow critic who split from the other website when you did , ( Capone ), is usually there. Let us know.
I am going to try to go. I’ve got a lot of commitments in August though, so I probably won’t be there long. I always love Flashback.