‘Agnes’ Review: A Devilishly Conflicted Tale of Possession and Doubt

Those uncertain just how seriously Paul Verhoeven intended us to take the alternately earnest and lurid nunsploitation of “Benedetta” will be even more flummoxed by Mickey Reece’s “Agnes.” The prolific, idiosyncratic Oklahoma auteur’s latest is half exorcism thriller, half character drama of lost faith. But those two sharply differentiated parts add up to much less than a coherent whole, in addition to being too underdeveloped and tonally wobbly to satisfy in themselves.

Unlike the squirrelly genre-bender that was the director’s last feature, “Climate of the Hunter,” conceptually near-random “Agnes” does not find its own singular terms to work within. Viewers lured in by the horror-movie marketing will be particularly irked by this bait-and-switch oddity, which Magnet releases to limited U.S. theaters and VOD on Dec. 10.

When a young nun suddenly begins ranting obscenities in a “demonic” voice at a Carmelite convent, the bishop informs Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) that he must attend to the situation. He’s been trained for such possession cases but is most reluctant to go, as he doesn’t “really believe in this medieval woo-woo” anymore, assuming instead that the woman is simply acting out a delusional fantasy. Nonetheless, he grudgingly consents, taking along as assistant the much less jaded recent seminary graduate Benjamin (Jake Horowitz). The latter is shocked to learn his erstwhile mentor got the assignment largely so the diocese could get rid of him — he’s been accused of sexual misconduct and has not denied it.

Father D.’s caustic attitude and the fat-cat caricaturing of his superiors suggests “Agnes” will be less a horror film than a sendup. That notion is furthered by the depiction of the convent, where variously bitchy and lecherous sisters seem to inhabit a mashup of “Nunsense” and “The Little Hours.” Yet the plight of the title character (Hayley McFarland) is presented pretty straightforwardly: She’s an apparent innocent whom some evil spirit has turned into a foulmouthed, violent gremlin. When Donaghue’s nose is nearly bitten off in one encounter, he calls for backup in the form of excommunicated celebrity exorcist Henry Black (Chris Browning). But that attempted intervention doesn’t go well either.

Roughly at the film’s midpoint, this in-progress crisis is abandoned — its resolution never related — and we leap forward to its aftermath. Now the focus is on Mary (Molly C. Quinn), a novice nun who was Agnes’ friend, and who’s since abandoned the vocation. She’s making an awkward reentry to secular life, working a crap big-box-store job for a creepy boss (Chris Sullivan), living in a dinky apartment with an equally untrustworthy landlord. She is visited by people from her old life (including Benjamin), who encourage a return to the fold. But she’s lost the requisite faith. Oddly, the only thing that seems to comfort her is the company of a stand-up comic (Sean Gunn as Paul Satchimo) she pursues after wandering into his gig.

For all Mary’s (and the Father Karras-like Donaghue’s) verbalized doubt, it’s difficult to suss whether “Agnes” takes religious belief seriously at all — let alone if it thinks demonic possession is an actual thing. Quinn is convincing as a person spiritually adrift, but the movie doesn’t make enough of the disillusioning secret she carries, and undercuts all of the above with the in-jokey character of the unfunny comedian. Using the veteran priest’s apparent pederasty as a kind of throwaway gag further muddies the waters here. Whatever Reece and sometime collaborator John Selvidge’s script is aiming for, it ultimately finds no particular point that makes sense of its wayward peculiarities for the viewer — or even makes their disharmony seem a deliberate provocation.

Having made a remarkable 20 features just in the past decade, the director has by now honed an impressive dexterity with modest resources. Samuel Calvin’s widescreen photography, Nicholas Poss’ diverse original score and the assured (if sometimes tonally clashing) performances are all a cut above for a regional indie. But quirkiness as an end in itself can be treacherous, and not every left-field idea merits realization. Despite a polished surface, “Agnes” winds up feeling like an ungainly home craft project that maybe should have been taken apart and reshaped into some entirely different, more purposefully cohesive form.