Fantasia Festival 2021 film Agnes is yet another take on the exorcism drama, and surprisingly it takes that concept and runs wild with it, at least for the first half. But then a dramatic tonal shift about halfway through the film kills that momentum and reshuffles the movie into a commentary on organized faith. While the first half is far stronger than the latter, both parts are compelling enough to maintain your attention to the film, even if the sudden change might cause the viewer to lose their footing for a bit in the middle.
When I started Agnes, I was immediately captivated by the black humor presented. Within the opening scenes, we see a nun go on a rampage that would make the demonically possessed Reagan proud. She curses, uses foul language and disrupts the stoicism of her sisters at the table. The stark difference from the opening scene to this one is enough to establish the wildly camp tone often presented during the film’s first 45 minutes or so.
Following up from that scene, we meet veteran priest Father Donaghue (Ben Hall), who has previously been accused of sexual misconduct toward young boys. Due to these accusations, which Donaghue never denied, he is being shipped off to the Saint Theresa convent to address the supposedly possessed nun, Agnes (Hayley McFarland). His moral corruption isn’t the problem at hand here, and the priests are more concerned about the church’s reputation than they are any victims. After Donaghue returns, they intend to send him to another country entirely to sweep the entire incident under the rug.
Fantasia Festival 2021: Agnes is a slow-burn and decidedly unique take on a familiar story
Priest-in-training Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) is sent along with Donaghue to keep tabs on him and ensure things go according to plan. But when he suggests that he could be in harm’s way given Donaghue’s reputation, the fathers burst into hysterics. It’s disconcerting and another instance of just how out-there director Mickey Reece intends to make his movie. They assure Benjamin he’ll be fine. He is a grown man, after all.
From there, the bulk of Agnes fixates on Agnes’s exorcism, which happens early on rather than at the climax like one might expect. We’re never shown exactly if Agnes is 100% possessed or not, but that’s not really the point of the story. Instead, the film looks more into the relationship between Agnes and Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn), one of the few people she shows real tenderness, too, despite her circumstances.
When the film shifts abruptly, it’s Mary we follow as she leaves the convent behind and tries to strike out on her own. In the “real world,” so to speak, Mary quickly finds herself struggling to stay afloat. She works a minimum wage job with a predatory boss that consistently tries to make inappropriate advances on her and then becomes obsessed with a local comedian. Themes from the first half return toward the end of the film, but I will say the ending felt somewhat lackluster.
Overall, I enjoyed Agnes and its big experimental swings, but I found myself wishing these story halves felt more cohesively joined. Still, I think Mickey Reece is an excellent director, and I appreciate his willingness to try something so unique.