'Poor Agnes' Review [2017 Fantasia Film Festival]

On occasion, a film review is an exercise in pointing out what should have been obvious, yet somehow remained unaddressed through production and editing. This is one such occasion. What ought to have been obvious? If you are going to present a character as being an insightful psychopath, you must give them insight. Poor Agnes did not.

Poor Agnes’s Agnes (Lora Burke) is thrust at us like some bargain bin, demonic Rust Cohle, allowed to pontificate on life and the human condition in monologues replete with surface-dwelling nonsense. She speaks with the confidence of a pothead among even higher potheads – convinced of her perspective, never offered challenge by a voice of reason or true wisdom. It seems entirely to be a failure of the script. Again, if you’re going to present a character as being an insightful psychopath, you must give them insight. Don’t just sit them in front of a camera and tell us they are worth listening to without actually making it so.

What’s Agnes’ game? She’s a serial killer and otherwise deviant, and decides to take investigator-turned-sexual-partner Mike Robert Notman as her new project, breaking him through torture and occasional tenderness until his will to live and be is gone and she is made his sadistic master.

That’s most of the film, Mike’s corruption taking him and Agnes to uncomfortable, criminal, and morally reprehensible places. He falls into subservience without eagerness, but also without much of a push, his peril largely implied by the time his will is broken, not adequately punctuated with the amount of torture one would think is needed to accomplish such a thing. This, too, over only a period of months. Would he be so broken so soon? Would he not attempt to escape, or to kill his captor? The film provides us with a number of opportunities for him to do both, but it never seems as though he really might. The scenes are there to demonstrate just how enthralled Mike is, but the reaction they elicit is mostly confusion as to how his inaction can be justified.

It’s a shame that the script is so weak, because the idea of following a captive and his captor could allow for a great film. In this case, the poor writing diminishes the rest of the product. This is particularly true of the acting. The actors are continually put through nonsense scenarios, forced to say nonsense things, and always seem to be on the verge of laughter – hardly an endorsement of the film.

Good writing is not easily done, and independent filmmakers don’t have the backing of enormous studios to pore over every word and get their product into prime shape. Even one good editor, though, might have been able to pick out many of the most egregious issues of this script before shooting began, and allowed the finished product to be decent, instead of endlessly problematic. As a cautionary tale about the darkest individuals in our midst, this film is a failure. As a cautionary tale about the perils of rushing through the process of writing a film, Poor Agnes serves as an excellent example.