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Devotees of demonic possession thrillers will have to adjust their expectations while watching writer-director Mickey Reece’s irreverent and unpredictable “Agnes.” Co-written with John Selvidge, the movie features some of the trappings of supernatural horror — including a demonic nun and an attempted exorcism — but rendered at first in a style that borders on camp. Then “Agnes” takes a turn again, becoming an earnest exploration of faith.
The film opens with a jolt, as an over-serious birthday celebration at a convent gets disrupted by the fed-up nun Agnes (Hayley McFarland), who shouts obscenities and throws cake. Convinced she’s been seized by the devil, the church sends the cynical Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) to straighten Agnes out, with the help of the more devout seminarian Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), whose handsomeness flusters the sisters.
The approach in these early scenes is purposefully cartoony, with the actors delivering their lines in a zippy monotone. Reece and Selvidge seem to be taking the anarchic Agnes’ side, mocking piety and poking at the solemnity of cloistered life. The joke becomes plainer with the arrival of the ridiculous Father Black (Chris Browning), a flashy, sports car-driving priest who has performed exorcisms on TV.
But “Agnes” shifts dramatically in its second half, as the incident with the exorcism results in the convent’s residents scattering, with some taking new assignments and some venturing “outside.” Agnes’ best friend, Mary (Molly Quinn), is one of the ones who quits and then struggles to adjust to a lonely existence as a grocery store shelf-stocker.
Throughout “Agnes,” there are indications that both Mary and Agnes have been infected with some dark madness, leaving them soul-sick and inclined to cause trouble. But while Agnes’ crisis of faith has her disrupting the decorum of a venerable institution, Mary’s sends her on a journey through an alienating city where she talks to an avant-garde stand-up comedian (Sean Gunn) and eventually to Benjamin about the meaning of life.
From moment to moment, it’s impossible to pin “Agnes” down, which may be a deal-breaker to anyone who comes to the movie expecting a straight-up horror film or a cult comedy. Sometimes this movie is unsettling; sometimes it’s funny. Mostly it’s a strange and fascinating inquiry into the nature of belief, which takes viewers far away from where it begins and then leaves it to them to find their way back.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.