Mickey Reece is an unusual filmmaker, one whose work stands out as much for its peculiar subject matter as for its eccentric style. His last production, Climate of the Hunter, dealt with, in his own words, two women “vying for the affections of a man who may or may not be a vampire.” Reece is known for combining genres and styles which seem incompatible, adding to the mix with his own quirky personal touches, including unexpected bits of extended dialogue, in a mode he describes as “people talking in rooms.” His approach may not have brought him critical acclaim, but it has earned a small cult following and admiration from fans of niche film – including horror movie buffs, as many of Reece’s films have horror elements. That includes his upcoming production, Agnes, which deals distinctively with the now-familiar horror theme of demonic possession.
The opening scenes of Agnes take place in a small, cloistered Catholic convent, where a modest birthday celebration is given for an elderly member of the community. This invites an example of the fixation on odd food, which is a feature of some of Reece’s work, with a sustained close-up of a mildly distasteful homemade birthday cake. It also introduces some of the key characters, seeming to revel in its rather harsh caricatures of the glum, passive-aggressive Mother Superior (who mentions a “joyous occasion” as if it were disappointing news), the giggling younger nuns, the vague, extremely elderly birthday celebrant. The placid scene abruptly escalates into mock-classic, slightly farcical horror, as one of the young nuns, Agnes (Hayley McFarland), leaps to her feet and begins screaming obscene accusations at the others. As the nuns watch in shock, the young woman continues to rant irrationally, the table rocks and dishes levitate, in what is almost a parody of former demonic possession scenes from earlier horror films.
The film continues to freely mix Reece’s brand of comedy with straightforward dramatic scenes, as the convent story unfolds. An exorcist, Father Donaghue (Ben Hall), is sent to the convent, but his journey is prefaced by a strange introductory meeting with his bishop, which is uncomfortably full of unspoken hostility and hints of hidden atrocities and potential scandal. Fr Donaghue, contrary to typical horror stories of this kind, is a sceptic: he does not accept the possibility of demonic possession but speculates that the ceremony might help the supposed victim psychologically. The one exact figure in the meeting is a young seminarian named Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), whose benign and balanced perspective remains essential throughout the film as the sole honest and impartial witness.
The first half of the film is centred on the convent and the exorcism, but with unexpected twists to the plot and with a continuous background of personality conflicts, ideological differences, and more hints of something shady behind the scenes. A second would-be exorcist, Father Black (Chris Browning), is eventually brought into the situation, a comically flashy showman with a new and unorthodox approach, leading to scenes that border on slapstick. Some of the clashes are funny or satirical, some are unpleasant or frightening, and some hint at deeper concerns, as the first act of the movie leads to consequences and decisions that will be dealt with in the second half – including one of the nuns – Mary (Molly C. Quinn), choosing to leave the convent.
The entire second act of the film takes place in a new location, where Mary, the young nun who withdrew from the cloister, now resides, trying to earn a living and adjust to the outside world. The tone of the second half is in sharp contrast to the convent scenes: more thoughtful and serious, the humour darker, the silliness and playful film references are gone, and the content vaguely philosophical, focused on Mary’s search for meaning. The remainder of the film has a meandering storyline, with two main plot points: Mary’s struggles with isolation, loss of faith, and the harsh realities of life; and her encounters with others (including Benjamin, now an ordained priest) and their seemingly aimless yet intense philosophical discussions, coming from Mary’s efforts to understand things that are no longer clear to her.
Agnes is a sometimes confusing film, mostly entertaining but with a less than straightforward plot. Mickey Reece is not a slave to consistency and feels no obligation to sustain any specific mood or attitude, serious or comical; the viewer must be prepared for sudden, sharp turns, from humorous to horrific, and from heartfelt to sarcastic. The convent scenes indulge freely in half-joking film references, possibly including Ken Russel’s 1971 The Devils and the 1985 drama Agnes of God; and what seem to be very deliberate imitations of Wes Anderson’s distinctive camera work, the whimsical group shots in startling contrast to the grim situation.
The entire first half of the film is a constant balance between horror and farce. For example, Sister Agnes’ physical attack on Fr Donaghue is vicious and creepy, but also a hair’s breadth from goofy physical comedy. His audience with his bishop is deeply unpleasant, full of sniping, retribution, suggestions of an unethical cover-up, along with a discussion of the situation at the convent; but it is presented with melodramatic details that make it all a bit ridiculous, from the exaggerated musical score to the presence of an absurd array of taxidermied animals in the bishop’s office, including an adult lion which the visitors must sit uneasily beside. The concluding act is far more naturalistic, still indulging in offbeat views of people and places, but without the farcical tone and keeping to a more conventional and serious storyline. It follows Mary in her secular life, as she tries to relate to people: her co-workers, her former fellow nuns, and a philosophical comedian (Sean Gunn) she makes an odd connection with. Mary’s background, her friendship with Agnes, and her reasons for joining the convent gradually emerge, along with other, more shocking troubles. The return of Benjamin brings the film full circle with a genuine spiritual discussion, ending on a plaintive note.
For all its rambling strangeness and lack of clarity, Agnes is oddly engrossing, its characters always watchable, its cast very good, and its unpredictability certainly arresting. Reece’s films may be an acquired taste, but not a completely inexplicable one.
Agnes premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 12.