Catholicism and faith are so ingrained in me that, to this day, I continue to struggle with the cultural connection between the church and Latinidad. Writer-director Mickey Reece offers his own perspective on Catholicism in “Agnes,” the story of the demonic possession of a nun who’s lost her faith.
Yet with everything on hand — the eerie nature of church, the stillness of questioning, the supernatural events — the result is a choppy, muddled mess of a movie that has its own identity crisis of what it wants to be or to show.
The movie opens with a scene depicting nuns during mass, when a young sister named Agnes (Hayley McFarland, “Sons of Anarchy”) begins cursing and levitating cups. The next moments are spent amongst priests who deliberate what to do with the young nun and conclude a way to rid themselves simultaneously of another problem as well — alleged pedophile Father Donaghue (Ben Hall, “Minari”). The priest has been trained in exorcisms and is ordered to go to the convent. He brings along priest-in-training Benjamin (Jake Horowitz, “The Vast of Night”) and warns the novitiate against taking his vows. (How this applies to the story, we never find out.)
Seemingly jumping into an entirely different film, after Father Donaghue begrudgingly performs the first rituals, “Agnes” turns its focus to Agnes’ friend, another young nun named Mary (Molly C. Quinn, “Castle”). We time-jump to the near future, and Mary has left the convent. She leads a quiet life, albeit one where she exists alone, disconnected, and without any pleasures or goals. One night, she meets Agnes’ ex-boyfriend, a comedian named Paul Satchimo (Sean Gunn). And things get a little weird — and that’s where it ends.
There are several other odd moments in “Agnes” that left me just staring blankly at the screen. And questioning how each interesting moment the film manages to produce is just suddenly dropped in favor of attempting to form an entirely different movie every 20 minutes or so. Reece and co-screenwriter John Selvidge never seem to agree on what this film is, and the truncated writing is evident.
The characters are never developed enough to be interesting, the flashbacks don’t make sense, and all the build-up around a supernatural event — only to deliver the slowest, most depressing tone — becomes one of the most disappointing elements.
The performances vary, but it’s not clear that the actors are the ones to blame. Every character is so underdeveloped; a Mother Superior (Mary Buss) appears, only to be a complete caricature of every “mean nun” ever captured on film. Same with the ornery priest, and the skeptical nuns, and the lecherous boss. Not a single character seems to come from anywhere or to be headed anywhere else, and that’s more a problem in the editing and directing than in the acting.
Though the shadowy scenery seems meant to evoke a spooky atmosphere, the lack of any actual scares turns production designer Kaitlin Shelby’s set-up into an empty, unformed sort of aesthetic. Unlike such contemporary films as “Hereditary” or “Midsommar,” which manage to create a palpable air of depression wrapped inside melancholy, “Agnes” just looks sad.
In a year packed with films that run two hours or more, “Agnes” thankfully only clocks in at 93 minutes, but the sluggish pacing makes it feel like you’re sitting through the entire “Lord of the Rings” saga. While director Reece has some 20 films to his credit in the last decade alone, it appears that he still doesn’t quite have a handle on either plot or pacing.
“Agnes” opens in theaters and on demand Dec. 10.