“Looks can be deceiving.” That wise old adage has been around forever and used to describe all sorts of things. It’s also a fitting way to describe Mickey Reece’s new film “Agnes”. This wobbly and disjointed movie teases itself as horror only to make a jarring turn midway through that sees it transform into something completely different. At first you think you’re seeing some audacious creative choice that will lead to a satisfying payoff. Instead it ends up feeling like something done just to taunt viewers with expectations. More on that later.
The story (written by Reece and John Selvidge) begins with a disaffected priest named Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) being called before his suspiciously cold superiors. He’s told about some strange occurrences happening at a convent named Santa Theresa in the far corner of their diocese. Reports say a young nun named Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) is showing all the movie signs of your standard demon possession: levitating, violent convulsions, superhuman strength, and a sudden potty-mouth.
A reluctant Father Donaghue is sent to the convent to investigate and promptly reminded that he is in no position to refuse. Why you ask? Well, apparently there are some accusations against him which he has denied but that have stained his reputation nonetheless. But don’t get too caught up in that stuff. The movie certainly doesn’t. It’s one of several things Reece teases only to drop without ever addressing it again.
The stuffy Bishop and his heads of the parish force Father Donaghue to take along priest-to-be Brother Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), Donaghue’s good-looking and by-the-books former pupil in the faith. The two don’t exactly see eye to eye especially after the unorthodox and occasionally crude Father Donovan expresses his skepticism of demonic possession and the holy rite of exorcism. He sees it as all psychological rather than supernatural. “I’ve seen this more than a few times,” he tells his young associate.
At the convent the two men of the cloth are greeted by the icy Mother Superior (Mary Buss) who doesn’t like the idea of two men hanging around her sisters. We’re also introduced to the troubled Sister Mary (Molly Quinn), a relatively new addition to the flock who’s trying to escape her own tragic past. She’s close friends with the bedeviled Sister Agnes. Things get even weirder with the introduction of the excommunicated Father Black (Chris Browning), with his pseudo-hip wardrobe and bronze spray tan. He and his creepy assistant (who looks plucked right out of a Terry Gilliam movie) come to the convent at the behest of Father Donaghue to confront the spirit. Or is there more going on than meets the eye?
Visually, the film’s first half resembles a low-budget knockoff of better supernatural possession flicks. But storywise Reece tosses in a few unexpected curveballs and turns what looks standard issue into something trickier and delightfully bizarre. But just as you’re getting into the weirdness and mystery of the story, the movie shifts in a wild and unexpected way. It lurches forward in time, leaving behind all of the wacky intrigue and never returning to it.
The movie suddenly turns into a character drama focusing on Mary. She has left the convent and struggles to get by, working double shifts and two jobs just to afford her $600 a month rent. We do get a couple of scenes that reference her past with the Carmelite sisterhood, but mostly its about her hard life and the few people she encounters along the way – her slimeball boss Curly (Chris Sullivan), and stand-up comic (Sean Gunn), etc.
There nothing inherently wrong with Mary’s story and Quinn gives a terrific performance. But Mary’s journey is remarkably undercooked. And while the movie tries to be clever with its dramatic shift in tone and completely new direction, it ends up feeling like two different films connected by the barest of threads. Even worse, neither story gets any kind of satisfying ending. Some may love the ambiguity. I was left thinking of all the ways this could have been a better movie. “Agnes” releases December 10th in select theaters and on VOD.