Consumers demand choice, and industry obliges. Creamy or crunchy peanut butter; diet or regular soda; dark or milk chocolate; Budweiser or cocktails wrung out of stale urinal cakes. In 2021, choice means enjoying your pick of nunsploitation movies: Rose Glass’ “Saint Maud,” Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” and now, last but not least, Mickey Reece’s “Agnes.” (In strict terms “Saint Maud” doesn’t qualify as nunsploitation, but it bears just enough of the niche’s hallmarks to scratch the itch if you’re in a bind.) “Agnes” occupies a somewhat unflattering spot on the December release slate, premiering on the heels of “Benedetta,” one of 2021’s best films and one of the most noteworthy pervy nun productions to come out in this century. That’s much to live up to.
The good news is that when a standard is that high, the burden to meet it exponentially decreases. Nobody’s expecting any movie in any genre or any aesthetic to come out and match the best of the best of the best. “Agnes,” therefore, isn’t stymied by “Benedetta” by any meaningful metric beyond marketing, because when one erotic nun thriller is already out on-demand, the release of another isn’t as exciting. But “Agnes” should excite viewers who like their demonic possession films and nun content fresh; there are nuns, and there is demonic possession, but there’s also Reece’s stubborn commitment to picking a niche and sticking with his aesthetic, which can be summed up as “characters kibitzing in dingy spaces.”
For clarity, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, Reece makes such sport of this tried and true method of independent filmmaking that “Agnes,” flush with dialogue and genre trappings, feels like a wholly original concept: A demonic-possession-nun film where the leads pass off protagonist duties like runners passing a baton in a relay race. For the first half, “Agnes” orbits Father Donaghue (Ben Hall), a priest dispatched to an orthodox old convent to perform an exorcism on Agnes (Hayley McFarland), who hasn’t quite been herself since a malevolent spirit declared squatters’ rights in her broken heart; for the second half, Reece puts his eye on Mary (Molly C. Quinn), Agnes’ friend and fellow bride of Christ, out of the convent and on her own after a gruesome turn of events in the preceding chapter.
Two movies for the price of one: That’s a real value. Reece has constructed two related but entirely distinct narratives in “Agnes,” one where plot is central to its function and one where it’s a nuisance. With Mary as his protagonist, “plot” becomes unnecessary, an obstacle to sensation and tone. “Agnes” is “her” story even with Father Donaghue in the lead; in that stretch of the film, she plays the part of witness, which lends unnerving air to his far more relaxed posture. Father Donaghue doesn’t take his assignment, handed down by his superiors in his archdiocese, particularly seriously. He thinks faith is a joke of a sort, one he tells to his neophyte, Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), a “young buck” yet to be ordained as a priest and sent on a holy ride along with Donaghue. Benjamin does take the charge seriously, as he takes his faith seriously. Donaghue, by contrast, dumps a few slugs of clear liquor into his tea mug and asks the mother superior (Mary Buss) for wine.
For a while, Reece is doing a bit with Donaghue. He’s a fun character and the best kind of movie priest: Sardonic, hard-drinking, a low-key randy old goat in a collar. But where Donaghue treats faith like a brunch, Reece treats it as a free solo mountain climb up the El Capitan wall. Faith isn’t easy. Believing in Jesus isn’t easy, and that’s a harsh truth to accept; Jesus, by all metrics and testimonies, was an awesome dude, but making one’s way to him necessitates suffering most of us would rather not imagine. Agnes finds and loses the love of her life, Paul Satchimo (Sean Gunn), who emerges in Mary’s story as Quinn’s co-star. Mary, prior to becoming a nun, had a son, and while she never explains how or why, he died. “Agnes” imagines grief not as a part of the spiritual journey, but as the journey writ large. If it was easy to arrive at one’s faith, then faith wouldn’t have any meaning.
Who got their philosophy of religion in our demonically possessed nun movie? Reece swings big with “Agnes,” not in terms of scope or scale but expectation; anyone walking into the film with a preconceived idea about its genre will, at best, be thrown off their guard by his aesthetic. “Agnes” is not “Haxan,” or “The Devils,” or “Veronica,” or, y’know, “The Nun.” It’s driven by talking more so than by scares, though Donaghue’s portion does deliver on the promise made by the imagery in the film’s marketing: With creepy modulated voices, with goopy blobs of gore, with undercurrents of suppressed horny energy, and with crisis of faith as a central cog in the plot. But Reece’s decision to pivot away from the mores of the nun niche pays off with newness.
It’s not often that a horror film gently pushes the brakes while heading toward the climax and becomes this intimate and this dependent on the most basic scene a film can capture: A conversation between two people. Maybe the effect of “Agnes’” resolution will be greater on audiences of faith than those of none. But the appreciation Reece deserves for taking a chance on a long-established horror niche should be equal among both. [B]