What is Agnes about?
Agnes starts off almost exactly like one would expect it to when they hear about a movie featuring an exorcism in a convent, with a nun named Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) exhibiting the telltale signs of being possessed by some kind of demon. In order to try and help her, the convent calls for a priest and ends up getting Father Donaghue (Ben Hall), a disaffected priest with a mild drinking problem and issues with his faith, and his neophyte Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), a soon-to-be-priest who has yet to take his final vows.
Together they must exorcise the demon from young Agnes, while also dealing with a mother superior (Mary Buss) who has serious misgivings about the both of them being there. They might be able to save Agnes with the assistance of a couple of the nuns… mostly Agnes’ good friend Mary (Molly C. Quinn) who seems to be having particular troubles dealing with the sight of what her friend is going through.
Cleverly, Agnes starts off being very much how one might expect a possession movie to look. It’s dark and demonic, there’s glorious tension and more than a few decent jump scares. Each of the nuns that make up the convent are fascinating characters, from perfectly pious to playfully horny they make for an interesting group to witness dealing with the plight that one of their own is going through. Director/Writer Mickey Reece plays every moment of the possession just right, never going too over the top but pushing it far enough that it’s unnerving.
Several scenes in the convent really make what’s going on just feel viscerally terrifying, with a lot of that relying on the power of the performance by Hayley McFarland who goes all out with her portrayal of the possessed nun. Even though we only get to see her for a few minutes before the possession kicks in, you still really feel for this character and want the priest to save her.
Even when the priests call in for backup in the form of Father Black (Chris Browning) it still feels like it might not be enough. For the first 50 minutes, the film is absolutely unnerving and terrifying… and then, in a moment that delighted me more than I can express, it asks the simple question “So how would everyone feel after this” and changes tone completely.
Turning into something of a character piece for the second half, Agnes looks into how the trauma of witnessing an exorcism like this might affect someone like Mary, someone who actually knows the person who went through the exorcism. It doesn’t offer some nice simple happy ending, instead taking the time to explore the ramifications of the events in the first half.
It’s admittedly a little slow in moments, but that’s largely because the first half is so tense that the body adjusts to that kind of experience and then going about a half-hour without all that intensity is going to feel off. Going from the intensity of a demon trying to bite someone’s face-off is going to make a discussion between a former nun and a stand up comic named Paul (Sean Gunn) feel slow no matter how interesting it might be… for the record, once you adjust to the new tempo it’s very interesting.
Agnes also has, quite possibly, one of the more unnerving soundtracks I’ve seen in a film all year. The intensity of it only grows every time the soundtrack kicks in and sets your teeth on edge. It’s carefully used and timed just right to really hit you by surprise, enhancing the tension that just pours out of the screen.
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