“Agnes surprises audiences by emerging as a haunting tale of grief, young motherhood and loss.”
While Mickey Reece’s Agnes (2021) is largely marketed as a horror film that draws upon the tired tropes of demonic possession and religious exorcism central to the nunsploitation genre, it surprises audiences by emerging as a haunting tale of grief, young motherhood and loss. From Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) to Paul Verhoeven’s polarising Benedetta (2021), the nunsploitation genre continues to fascinate by showing how evil persistently corrupts even the most innocent of souls. Stories about nuns are provocative because these women are seemingly different from everyone else: having sworn eternal vows of chastity and abstinence from the outside world, it is easy for audiences to admire, yet admonish, nuns for their faith in the intangible, all while dismissing our own endless indulgences in tangible material excesses. Agnes reminds us, however, that we are just as responsible for perpetuating the worldly horrors that drive women under duress to seek refuge in a convent. But the film’s bifurcation into two disjointed halves—the first in the convent and the second in the outside world—ultimately struggles to blend the otherworldly with the human, and its promising take on the nunsploitation genre is hence rendered lacklustre by weak thematic exposition.
Agnes starts off as your standard demonic possession film. We begin with the titular Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) angrily cursing at her fellow sisters during dinner. In a purposefully formulaic manner, the table shakes, silverware levitates, while Sister Agnes looks exactly like a hysterical woman who is profoundly unhappy with the stifling life that nun-hood dictates. The sisters decide that she is possessed, and the leaders of the diocese send disgraced-priest-sans-sexual-abuser Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) and priest-in-training Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) to perform an exorcism. It is a doomed trip, as the church intends to quietly excommunicate Father Donaghue for the disturbing sexual allegations.
Father Donaghue doesn’t believe in possession, and while that could have been vindicating for non-religious audiences, we can’t help but feel that his comments on Sister Agnes’ ill behaviour border on sexism and misogyny: he insists that it’s all in her head, and that she is merely looking for a patriarchal figure to validate her appetite for God’s response. In reply to his smug condescension, she bites his nose off and leaves him bleeding on the floor — but this is the last we really see of Sister Agnes, before the film abruptly breaks off to focus on Sister Mary’s (Molly C. Quinn) equally sad life years after leaving the convent. What could have been an intriguing exploration of what is deemed as evil or demonic by the church’s male-dominated rankings is jettisoned before it could be properly dealt with.
The first half of the film briefly features a close friendship between Sister Mary and Sister Agnes; it was Sister Agnes who showed Sister Mary tenderness even amidst the throes of demonic possession, gently telling Sister Mary that she cannot seek solace for the loss of her son within a loveless and suffocating religious doctrine. So off Sister Mary goes, now working as a grocery store cashier under a boss who repeatedly harasses her and solicits her for sex. On top of that, she has to deal with a landlord who increases her rent at his whim. The horrors of the real world are arguably on par with the horror of demonic possession in the convent. Sister Mary seeks for the unconditional love that Sister Agnes has shown her everywhere she goes — even seeking out Sister Agnes’ ex-boyfriend — but still ends up crying alone in a desolate apartment to a picture of her dead son. In that moment, God’s absence has never felt more punishing.
The parallels between Sister Agnes’ boyfriend, Sister Mary’s boss, and Father Donaghue would have worked as an indictment of misogyny within and beyond the church if not for the glaring lack of closure in the first half of the film, where the sexual allegations against Father Donaghue were only mentioned, but never properly addressed. The sheer magnitude of grief that Sister Mary has for her son and for a religious faith that has abandoned women like her is left hanging, like the film’s failure to connect and further explicate its two seemingly disparate narratives.
The most affecting and emotionally poignant moment of the film comes towards the end, when Sister Mary meets Father Benjamin and asks if he has ever felt love outside of God. We all want to love and be loved, but as the film reveals, we are led to love in the wrong places and in the wrong ways. It is only a shame that Agnes’ absence of closure does not provide a satisfactory conclusion that such a question demands.
Directed By: Mickey Reece
Written By: Mickey Reece and John Selvidge
Produced By: Jensine Carr, Molly Quinn, Matthew M. Welty, Elan Gale, Jacob Snovel
Cast: Hayley McFarland, Molly Quinn, Ben Hall, Jake Horowitz, Mary Buss, Chris Sullivan