(Agnes screened at the Philadelphia Film Festival this past weekend. It screens there again on October 27 and goes into a limited theatrical release on December 10.)
When young nun Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) begins to exhibit some rather un-nunlike behavior, including cursing, fits of violence and levitating objects, the Mother Superior of their convent sends to the diocese and the Bishop for help. Their answer is to send Father Frank Donaghue (Ben Hall), a priest who has some experience in performing exorcisms. The Mother Superior is not thrilled at having a man, even a priest, passing through the convent’s front door, but some of the other nuns aren’t so bothered. However, the first attempt at exorcising what may be ailing Agnes does not quite go as planned and that sets Agnes off on a rather unusual narrative trajectory.
Agnes may be being billed as a horror film, but I am not sure that I would agree with that classification. Nor would I really call this a nunsploitation film, either, though I could seethe temptation to do so. It certainly doesn’t feel like it wants to engage in the standard tropes of either genre, playing them up for the thrills that fans generally expect from those genres. If anything director Mickey Reece is looking to have some fun with genre tropes while at the same time subverting the expectations genre fans may have. For example, as Father Donaghue, the Mother Superior and some of the other nuns first walk towards Sister Agnes’s room, he gives them a hero’s slow-motion strut accompanied by appropriately stirring music on the soundtrack. It’s a laugh-out-loud comedic beat on its own as well as setting up the audience for the reversal of expectations in the next scene’s rather banal exorcism.
But the biggest subversion comes around the midpoint of the film. After one of the other young nuns, Sister Mary (Molly Quinn), has a discussion with the seemingly for the moment free-of-the-devil Agnes, Reece jumps the narrative several months forward. Mary has now left the convent and is living on her own, working in a supermarket and struggling to make ends meet. At one point, she meets the man (Sean Gunn) Agnes had been involved with before she had entered the convent. And as they strike up a relationship, Mary tries to figure out what happened between him and Agnes that may have driven her to become a nun. The shift in focus away from the titular character as a presence on screen to being someone that still has a hold over another’s life.
And this plays into something even bigger about the film that I appreciate. While I am not really much of a practicing Catholic anymore, I always find it refreshing when coming across the rare film that remembers that the clergy are people who can have depth of character and aren’t just all cut from the same stock religious character cloth. Mother Superior (Mary Buss) may be overly pious but the other nuns have their own varying levels of propriety. One or two find Father Donoghue attractive and don’t see it as sinful to just make mention of the fact, whereas others among their number are scandalized at the mere thought his attractiveness could be pointed out without it being something more than just a simple, innocent observation. And just the idea of following Mary after she leaves the convent mid-exorcism to follow her story feels refreshing. The shift in focus to what would normally be a supporting character quickly forgotten is an interesting venue with which to still be exploring the titular character, even if only in relief.
At the end of Agnes though, the viewer is left to wonder what happened what did happen with the film’s titular, but that might not be the point. Was Agnes right in what she said that led to Molly’s departure from the convent? Or was it Satan speaking through her to get her to question her faith and abandon her vows? Who really won in this struggle? It is similar to the question that fans of The Exorcist are left with in terms of Father Karras’s soul at the end of the classic 1973. So maybe this could be considered something of a horror film after all.