Walking into Agnes blind, one might get the sense it’s just another exorcism movie, and potentially a very campy one. But the setup is very quickly revealed to be on shaky foundations as it gives way to a crisis of faith film. That’s where the true horror lies, in the painfully real boredom of the everyday.
It’s not the demonic possession at the core of Mickey Reece’s film that’s scary, though it has one rousing introduction. Seconds into the film, Sister Agnes (Hayley MacFarland) launches into a series of unholy expletives during a dinner in her convent. Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) and his priest-in-training Benjamin (Nick Horowitz) are sent to perform the rituals of exorcism.
But nothing is scary, nor is it intended to be. It’s meant to be funny, but it’s only slightly amusing. None of the priests’ solutions or approaches even appear like they stand a chance of working against the evil they’re facing. Donaghue doesn’t really believe, and there’s a rote approach to the whole affair, as though they know these alleged Holy words are mere platitudes today.
If there were such horrific beings as demons in existence, the Catholic church of Agnes would have a hard time combating them. Then again, in Reece’s world, we’re all pretty ill-prepared.
The horror comes elsewhere, outside of the convent, in the dull repetition of washing machine cycles and intimidating conversations with former nun Mary’s (Molly C. Quinn) new boss. It’s a banal horror, accentuated with the musical cues left intentionally absent in scenes of exorcism; Reece presents all of this in the same lime-green and white, hospital sheen of the convent.
Reece spends a lot of time building both worlds, lending the same haunting texture to both. There’s a hollowness in how he and cinematographer Samuel Calvin film the modern world that removes it from time. A television interview with a celebrity exorcist looks pulled from the 70s. But as connected as the two worlds are, the shift in tone is still a little too jarring, with not much of a conclusion.
What it does have holding it together, however, are some truly solid performances.
Quinn is quite good as the ex-nun in the film’s latter half, though the performances throughout are stellar. It’s particularly to Halls’ credit that the reveal Donaghue may be a predator is an actual blow to the audience – it comes within minutes of meeting him. Both priests are about as likable as those in William Peter Blatty’s writings, only today’s versions are using their jokes and charm to conceal atrocities.
Given the state of things, it makes complete sense that the quiet, insidious horrors of the present day are the most unsettling thing about an exorcism film.
The prayers ring hollow, the ones saying them don’t appear all that committed, there’s a disconcerting shift in the narrative at the halfway mark and the one honest moment of belief comes from a stand-up comedian’s set (Sean Gunn). The easy joke is No Country for Old Nuns, though it shares more with that film than just a cheap line.
Kenny Hedges is Carbon-based.