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Review: Mickey Reece’s ‘AGNES’ at Fantasia Is a Wonderfully Bizarre Story of an Exorcism and the Working-Class



Review: Mickey Reece's 'AGNES' at Fantasia Is a Wonderfully Bizarre Story of an Exorcism and the Working-Class

Mickey Reece, nuns, a demon, an exorcism, a giant lion, and a sandwich. Yes, yes!

AGNES is the new Mickey Reece, co-written with John Selvidge, screening at the Fantasia International Film Festival, where his last feature, THE CLIMATE OF THE HUNTER, an independent film about a vampire, debuted last year. Reece is back with AGNES because Reece never stops; nobody can stop him. He makes a film a year, and before that, he made even more, but this time he has a bit more money, and he knows what to do with it. Thank God for directors like Mickey Reece.

In AGNES, Father Donaghue, a priest with a problematic past (Ben Hall), is sent to exorcise a demon from a possessed nun. His superiors hate him; we don’t know why but we can guess; perhaps he’s guilty of moral crimes, it’s not clear. They want Father Donaghue to fail, which is why they give him an impossible task probably to humiliate him, and they’ll find a way to punish him if he succeeds. Benjamin, a young archdeacon (Jake Horowitz), accompanies him on his mission. Benjamin is politically naive but supportive, though he was definitely sent to ‘watch him.’

At this point, we might think that the film would follow the story of a priest proving his innocence by exorcising a demon since only one who is pure at heart can conquer a demon. Father Donaghue will be hailed a hero, and the people who misjudged him will apologize, and God will punish the trash-spewing sinners for their manipulations. But that’s not what happens because that never happens. Reece could have told that story, but Reece wasn’t interested in telling that story; he wanted to tell the story of Mary, a friend of Agnes (Hayley McFarland).

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Reece follows Mary (Molly C. Quinn) instead of the priest, the demon, the possessed, or church politics. The story follows Mary after she leaves the church: She’s alone, and she’s poor, but this is where the film gets especially good, even better than the beginning of the film, which was great, filled with levitating tea-cups and a beautiful cake since Reece loves images of sweets. The first part of AGNES is a weird story about a wayward priest, but the second part of AGNES is altogether different: The second part is a thoughtful examination of a working-class woman’s life post-nunnery. They usually send women off to a nunnery in literature, so seeing a woman return from one is fascinating.

After leaving the order, Mary works as a cashier, and it sucks. Life is hard, and it’s hard for everyone, including her landlord, a superb Bruce Davis as Earl. She ends up on a date with a comedian (Sean Gunn), yes, a comedian. He’s funny, sad, smart, and not terribly successful, but that’s not entirely surprising, but he’s content; he’s smart enough to be content. There’s a scene where he’s doing stand-up, and Mary watches him, not laughing, though she ends up laughing later, alone, after she thought about the joke, and then, she can’t stop laughing. It scares people. What is going on with Mary? Is she a demon? Is she possessed? Is she in love?

I’m not quite sure I understand what happens but that didn’t bother me too much. AGNES feels like two films pieced together structurally, and some might think this is ‘wrong,’ but it’s not, it’s a choice, for the second part examines the first event from the perspective of a side character, after time. Some stories have to be told in their own way, and Mary’s story is told as it unfolds as if the camera turned its head to follow her. Molly C. Quinn, as Mary, is incandescent; it’s a moving and sincere performance, particularly at the end when she discusses her loss.

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Reece likes actors, he writes for them. AGNES has an excellent cast: the landlord, the comedian, the cashier, the disgusting manager, the priests, the nuns, the blowhard Exorcist, and Rachel True pops up as Sister Ruth. Reece gives his characters something to say; they think, they observe—a sandwich isn’t just a sandwich to them—it’s the universe rolled up into a ball. Is it heavy-handed? No, no, it isn’t. It’s great, it’s more than great, it’s a swing. Nobody wants to say anything about anything because they’re terrified of being called ‘pretentious,’ which is how people neg you into staying small.

The camera work in AGNES is more playful than in CLIMATE OF THE HUNTER tooReece and cinematographer Samuel Calvin make some pretty unusual and cool images together. One composition includes a ceramic lion (that also looks like a giant stuffed animal) placed between a priest and an archdeacon. It’s framed so perfectly it feels as if you are staring at a bizarre religious painting found at a garage sale. Of course, there’s no reason to place a giant lion in the frame, but Reece does, and it’s wonderfully weird. Not hacky weird, genuinely interesting weird. The film’s first part is filled with stylish flourishes like that, including a slow-mo shot of the gang (an Exorcist, a would-be-priest, and a group of intense nuns) walking together to confront a cocky no-good demon.

The first half of AGNES has a horror-comedy vibe, and though I wanted to see more floating teacups or Agnes (Hayley McFarland) insult the priests again (so smug, so patriarchal!), I was pleasantly surprised by the second part which turned into a 90s indie, with a gentle discussion about a sandwich. It might not exactly tie in with the first half, yet it’s a conclusion of sorts: If you’ve grown up poor, you know that life is a constant battery of social horror and financial terror, so even the tiniest moment of grace is appreciated.

AGNES is a bizarre, amazingly talky, thoughtful film. Though it’s technically about an exorcism, the most potent scenes are about loss and what it’s like to be working-class in America. I enjoyed it and I think you would too.