'Agnes': An Exorcism Movie for the Pensive Crowd [Fantasia Film Festival]

A group of nuns look at camera
A movie still from AGNES

Since 1973, when The Exorcist made its debut, movies about exorcism have been a scarce but reliable staple of the horror scene, with an average of only 1.5 movies worldwide each year. The trailer of Agnes promises another terrifying experience, with graphic special effects and unsettling footage of a girl possessed. But Agnes delivers something much different. Director Mickey Reese is much more interested in the nuns and priests who choose the life of the pious. What draws them to the work? What goes inside the walls of convents and monasteries? And most importantly, for those who enter and choose to leave the life of devotion, what happens to them afterwards? Agnes plays as a story in two parts and delivers a thoughtful, irreverent, and darkly humorous experience. Viewers looking for a bloodcurdling scare will be sorely disappointed, but filmgoers who have traditionally shied away from the exorcism flick may give this one a chance (raises hand).

The Carmelite order at Santa Teresa spend their days meditating and putting their hands to good use. Nuns-in-training sing sweetly in gowns of white, and occasionally an indulgence of cake (with angelic fluffy white frosting) is even served. But this tranquil scene turns sour when Sister Agnes (Hayley MacFarland) erupts in a bombastic tirade of profanity and psychokinesis. The powers that be determine to send in Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) and his protege Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) to exorcise the demons surely possessing the little lamb. The first half of Agnes depicts the ill-fated mission from start to finish as a grand succession of errors. The second half shifts in tone and perspective. An unknown span of time has passed and Sister Mary (Molly Quinn), one of the nuns at Santa Teresa that night, has laid down the cloth and lives as a layperson. She gets a job and even tries dating, but nothing compares to the love, devotion, and sense of community she once felt as a nun. A night out on the town sets off a chain of events, leading her to seek spiritual counseling from the one reasonable person she remembers from the days of Agnes.

Character development revealed through dialogue takes precedence in a Mickey Reese picture. He describes his directing style as "people talking in rooms" for a reason. The screenplay co-written by Reese and John Selvidge is chock full of dialogue between characters. They ruminate, share their experiences and beliefs, and make decisions, with one person always forced to go along with the high man on the totem pole. Reese and Selvidge show a world in which uneven distribution places some in positions of power, with the powerless left to fend for themselves. Sometimes the powerless resort to violent means in order to regain agency.

Three people of Catholic leadership walk down a hallway
[L-R] Jake Horowitz as BENJAMIN, Ben Hall as FATHER DONAGHUE, Mary Buss as MOTHER SUPERIOR in AGNES. 

Tonally the two halves of the story contrast sharply. The time in the convent is played for farce, using over-the-top special effects and camera work expected from a crime story. When Benjamin and Father Donaghue go to receive their assignment from the local diocese, they do so in a room decorated with taxidermied animals. The men in power give each other side-eyed glances and emit menacing chuckles. As Father Donaghue, Benjamin, and the Mother Superior (frequent Reese collaborate Mary Buss) prepare for the exorcism, they approach with a badass slow motion walk worthy of a Michael Bay picture. And Father Donaghue's first failed attempt compels him to bring in a celebrity pastor, one Father Black (Chris Browning), who plays a perfect parody of a televangelist.

Once the story shifts to outside the convent, the tone changes from farce to a quieter, sinister tale. No one pretends to be beatific, but the world fully embraces corruption and heartlessness as a norm. The intrinsic goodness of Mary contrasts sharply against the cynicism on display from such characters as Curly (Chris Sullivan) and Paul Satchimo (Sean Gunn), the ex-lover of Agnes.

With minimal special effects, a non-melodic score, and a runtime of mostly talking, Reese needs every cast member to understand their role and play it with dedication. Luckily, all cast members seem up to the task. It's no wonder Reese was able to wrangle the right crew, with frequent collaborators Mary Buss, Ben Hall, and Jacob Ryan Snovel in attendance. Ben Hall plays the cynical Father Donaghue to a tee. Jake Horowitz takes his role as the idealistic acolyte quite seriously. His integrity plays as a nice contrast with the world-worn Father Donaghue. Molly Quinn as Sister Mary imbues her performance with purity and empathy. Unlike the rest of the ordained team, she takes the time to talk to Sister Agnes and sees something worth noticing -- something that changes the course of her life.

A girl sits at a table looking down
Molly Quinn as MARY in AGNES

Through the many conversations we learn why these men and women chose to live the pious life. Some run from pain and loss. Some find a distraction from the demons they carry inside. Others believe in the vows with seemingly no ulterior motive. This mismatch of backgrounds creates a potential for great harm as well as good. For Mary, the realization that she is part of something doing harm is devastating.

Thematically, as a story, Agnes captures the journey of the faithful "losing their religion." Whether Agnes is possessed by demons or suddenly wakes up to the hypocrisy of those around her, her anger is sudden and volatile. In result, Mary misses that life, but she no longer belongs there. She knows too much and can't go back.

I found a lot to appreciate in Agnes. On a personal note, like Mary, I find myself more and more wanting to distance myself from organized religion. While my love for the teachings of Christ remains true, it becomes harder each day to turn a blind eye to the bad fruit that comes from these groups. Each day, another church leader confesses to some sexual scandal or power play. Churches run like businesses instead of agents of mercy. And I find myself, like Mary, asking, "How can we know God?" May I always find people like Benjamin to give me truth in the form of a sandwich.

Final score: 3.5 out of 5

Release info: Available on demand during Fantasia Film Festival.