This really isn’t the exorcism movie you might expect from its ominously-styled first act, in which three priests – troubled veteran Father Donoghue (Ben Hall), his devout apprentice Deacon Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) and excommunicated talkshow self-publicist Father Black (Chris Browning) – try to rid nun Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) of a possible demon. Perhaps sinister, perhaps cynical church higher-ups send the exorcists to a convent run by an old-school Mother Superior (Mary Buss), and it’s plain that Agnes isn’t the only person in the room with demons.
The ritual doesn’t work out well for any of the participants, and the film switches focus to Mary (Molly C. Quinn), a young nun so disturbed by all this she leaves the convent and finds herself in an outside world where she has to earn a living and pay rent though she’s never learned basic skills like cashing a pay cheque and is viewed as easy prey by all manner of worldly folk. Just as the convent sections of the film are darkly shadowed and slightly exaggerated – everyone poses as if for a still, and there are jarringly odd touches like the stuffed lion in the church’s inner sanctum – the ‘real world’ is full of soft-spoken creeps like Mary’s boss at a supermarket (Chris Sullivan) and folsk like the co-worker (Ginger Gilmartin) who take advantage of the ex-nun’s perceived saintliness by asking favours.
Mary’s way back into the original story comes through middling stand-up comedian Paul Satchimo (Sean Gunn), who turns out to have been important to an earlier stage of Agnes’ spiritual journey. Then, Reece delivers an ending many will find more abrupt than disturbing. The key, perhaps, is Mary’s reaction to Paul’s act – she doesn’t laugh while the guy is onstage struggling, but barks with a kind of hysteria hours later … it might take a while after the film’s over for viewers to be scared or moved by Mary’s revelations. The first act feels like a sly minidrama, with effective work from Hall, Horowitz and Browning as the exorcists who all get bitten (literally and/or metaphorically) by the demon or Agnes – then Quinn (Mrs Grady in Dr Sleep) takes centre stage with an extraordinary, intense, subtle star turn as the lapsed nun who isn’t quite the innocent doormat people take her for.
Bonus points for naming supporting nuns after characters in Black Narcissus, with Rachel True and Zandy Hartig amusing as Sisters Ruth and Honey. Director Mickey Reece, who co-scripted with John Selvidge, are following up their unusual vampire movie Climate of the Hunter. Like that, Agnes isn’t going to click for everyone — but it has moments of hilarity, horror, subtlety and strangeness that stick in the mind and at least has ambition to be more than just the 666th imitation of The Exorcist.