Mickey Reece’s Agnes invites comparison to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope/The New Pope practically from its opening moments. The posed group shots, the puckishly jarring title card, the conscientiously odd-looking Catholic faces scored to idiosyncratic soft rock — it’s all straight out of Sorrentino’s playbook, and it’s all sorely lacking his tender, biting dialog and deep knowledge of visual language. Take the lighting as a starting point; Sorrentino’s work is bathed in buttery golds, rich reds like fresh blood, and the soft white haze of memory and divinity. Reece’s film is washed in a uniform grayish blue, its sets, costumes, and faces flattened by the lack of variance. Where Sorrentino’s work is iconoclastic — giant neon crosses, cardinals doing pratfalls like something out of Duck Soup — Reece’s is simply uncertain of what kind of movie it’s trying to be. We start with demonic possession and intimations of child molestation, and then after forty or fifty minutes of this we slide without transition into a generic indie flick, a bold narrative choice undone by the film’s incoherent tone, pasteboard second act, and unimpactful protagonist, Mary (Molly C. Quinn).
Reece’s film has little to say about Catholicism, its soul-searching confined to bland metaphors about taking joy in hard and unrewarding work. Ben Hall does game work as the leathery Father Donaghue, but there’s simply nothing under the surface, and the movie is unwilling to engage with the dark ideas it mentions in passing. Nor does its half-assed exorcism plot, which peters out only to return somehow even less interesting in the film’s final leg, bring anything new or noteworthy to the table. The titular Agnes (Haylet McFarland), her hair teased out into a preposterous Grandma Addams mane, screams toned-down versions of lines from The Exorcist to a bunch of nuns we never get to know particularly well. There’s a horny one, a preposterously stern one without the gravitas to really pull it off, and then wide-eyed Mary who slips from supernatural thriller to mumblecore romance without making an impression in either.
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A Gunn on the Mantelpiece
Maybe Agnes’s most confusing narrative decision is its sudden and inconclusive focus on professor-turned-comedian Paul Satchimo (Sean Gunn), the love of Agnes’s life before her retreat into the Carmelite convent. Mary pursues Satchimo after seeing him perform at a local bar, his routine precipitating a day-long jag of uncontrollable laughter which nearly sees her fired from her job. Gunn is likeable in the role, imparting an earthy, even-handed believability to his thin dialogue, but his date with Mary is nearly substanceless. Even her sharing her emotions around the death of her son feels forced and hollow, devoid of intimate texture. It might have happened at any time and to anyone.
The sudden and ambiguous reemergence of the possession story reads as equally flat, a tenuously justified dramatic choice connecting real-world experience and sexuality to some kind of demonic emptiness. Perhaps Reece means to communicate that emotional healing cannot occur through sex or romantic love, but only through the kind of Christian hard work and fortitude father Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) lays out in his closing monologue. Whatever his intent, the results are unimpressive, the hoped-for gravity of the film’s final moment more a dry little fart of apathy than a real attempt at narrative ambiguity. What Reece has created is a second-rate collage of better artists’ work, a pastiche hampered at every turn by shoddy craftsmanship and cut-rate imagination.