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Agnes (2021) Film Review

Some solid performances from a good cast aren’t enough to save Agnes from a lack of focus, underwhelming direction, and an inability to fully decide on what it wants to be.

I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting from Agnes. When I first heard of a film about a possessed nun terrorizing her convent, I was hoping that it was a loose film adaptation of John Pielmeier’s 1979 nun-themed stage play “Agnes of God”, which is excellent. But no, Agnes is an original screenplay written by director Mickey Reece and screenwriter John Selvidge. It’s a script that dips into horror and drama, but (at the risk of showing my hand too soon) that could have benefitted from a couple more drafts.

This is where I would normally give a synopsis of the plot, but Agnes makes this difficult for me: the film feels like two different 45-minute movies, one playing directly after the other. The first movie focuses on an old and jaded Catholic priest, Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) and a young and inexperienced deacon, Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), summoned to a convent to perform an exorcism on the eponymous nun (Hayley MacFarland). The second half focuses on none of these characters: in fact, two of them are never seen again, and the third gets one brief scene. No, the second half of the film is devoted to Agnes’ friend Mary (Molly C. Quinn), where we see her struggle financially outside the convent.

I mean, I just described the big problem with Agnes, didn’t I? The script is all over the place, and the rest of the movie struggles to keep up. The tone is wildly inconsistent: Is it a horror movie? I honestly don’t know. Agnes doesn’t seem particularly committed to being horror in the first half, and the second half almost entirely forsakes any sort of horror aesthetic. Does the world of this film have supernatural elements? The first half hints that it might, but those particular ideas are all but dropped in the second half. Is this supposed to be like a campy horror comedy thing? The first half makes some attempts at humor and campy effects (there’s a scene at the beginning where a cup levates like it’s being dangled from a fishing line and it made me laugh audibly), but again, all of that is forgotten in the second half as we’re suddenly honed in on the struggles of someone who was set up as a supporting character.

loud and clear reviews Agnes movie 2021 exorcism drama horror
A scene from AGNES, a Magnet release. (Photo by Stephan Sutor. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.)

I’m sorry to get hung up on this point, but it’s such a massive issue that anything else seems to pale by comparison. Agnes sets up the characters of Donaghue and Benjamin with some genuinely solid character dynamics and the potential for dramatic tension later on, and then abandons them completely for the entire second half of the narrative, never paying off or exploring any of it. The titular Agnes is barely in this thing, and her character, let alone her exorcism, are hardly mentioned in the second half of the movie, and we get no closure on any of it outside of a throwaway line about how Agnes was “taken away.”

We briefly get to hear about the fallout immediately following the exorcism, but we don’t get to see any of it. That’s what should have been the second half of this movie: seeing how established characters grapple with a tough situation. Show us how their faith is tested, or if the movie’s going to hint at the supernatural, give us some payoff. Anything would have been more interesting than forty-five minutes of Mary working at a grocery store.

I think the quality of the movie’s craft can be best encapsulated by a scene near the end. There’s a scene where Mary and Benjamin have a conversation in a diner, though I couldn’t tell you what they talked about because I was distracted. In the background, playing over the diner’s speakers, is a piece of music I had heard before. A piece called “Local Forecast” by Kevin MacLeod. It is a royalty-free piece of music made to sound like elevator muzak widely used by creators on YouTube. Instead of having the film’s composer, Nicholas Poss, make something for this scene, or simply not having any music at all, Agnes chose to have goofy royalty-free muzak, often used by and associated with YouTubers who rant about media, play over a scene that was supposed to be taken seriously.

Agnessaving graces are the performances from its actors. Though you can often tell they’re just working with what they’ve been given, there are still some highlights worth noting. Ben Hall‘s jaded and quippy delivery turns Father Donaghue the most interesting character in the movie, making it even more tragic that he’s shelved for the entire second half. The script makes it clear that Donaghue has made some bad choices in his life and should not be thought of as a hero, but Hall adds so much charisma and personality to the character that you cannot help but to enjoy having him on screen. Sean Gunn also has a small role as a comedian in the second part, injecting some much needed energy and charm into the film’s latter half.

One question I ask myself after watching a movie is “did this succeed in what it was trying to do?” In the case of Agnes, I don’t think I can answer that question, because I honestly don’t know what it was trying to do or what it was trying to be. The writing, tone, and pacing just come across as confused and undercooked. To its credit, at least there isn’t anything about Agnes I’d deem as offensive or hateful, so that always makes me happy. But at the end of the day, Agnes falls flat by having a script that was simply not ready to be made into a movie.

Agnes: Trailer (Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing)

Agnes was released in US theaters and on VOD on December 10, 2021.

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