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Director: Navin Ramaswaran

Screenplay: James Gordon Ross

Starring: Lora BurkeRobert NotmanAmy Marie Wallace

Review: David Stephens

Okay, so the antagonist of this film never actually adopts the alias “Mary”, but why let facts get in the way of a good punny sub-headline? Anyway, genre movies have a special affinity with psychopaths. Of course there are the super-powered supernatural boogeymen like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, but there are also the sociopathic villains that feel all too real and possible. Bastards like Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho”, and Henry from “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”. The fascination lies with “normal” well-balanced people - which most of us would like to think we are to some extent – trying to comprehend how killers can disassociate themselves from the act of murder and/or brutality. It’s a (hopefully) alien feeling to be able to enjoy or crave the death or pain of a fellow human being. That said, there are plenty of people out there in the world that can coldly take innocent lives for no reason. And plenty of ‘em are women, so let’s not be sexist. You only have to spend 5 minutes surfing through the true-crime channels to be assured of that. So here we have a chilling character study of an unorthodox female psychopath. “Poor Agnes” is a Canadian horror shot in Northern Ontario by director Navin Ramaswaran, and starring British actress Lora Burke. It won an award for the “Best Canadian Feature” at The Fantasia Film Festival this year and will have its UK premiere at Grimmfest in Manchester on October 6th. So YGROY takes in an early preview to see if the female of the species … ah, you know the rest.

It opens with a morose existential monologue from the lead character Agnes Poelzl (an excellent performance by Burke) as she lies in bed and declares her superiority to those around her. Rising from the bed, she takes food from the freezer (ignoring the severed head by the frozen peas), and sets out for the day in her van – stopping only briefly in a layby to kill a random victim hidden in the back. So far, so unnerving. But changes are afoot as Mike Mercer (Robert Notman) enters the picture. He’s a private investigator who’s looking into a 10 year-old missing person case, which leads him to the door of Agnes. Over-confident and attracted to the young woman, he makes a successful play for her affections, which surprisingly works… but does have the downside of leaving him totally at the mercy of a completely amoral and delusional sociopath. From that point a destructive and complex relationship forms between the two loners…

“Agnes” is a surprisingly chilling and accomplished character study, which is grounded by an incredibly well-judged performance by Burke. If the film was a larger-budget studio horror, it’s the sort of role you could imagine Brie Larson or Jennifer Lawrence taking on and getting some recognition for. But Burke inhabits the role perfectly. For all intents and purposes she looks like a normal attractive woman, a little bit flirty but obviously whip-smart and confident. It’s the dangerous layers beneath that surface that provide the main material though.

As Agnes engages in slightly-fourth-wall-breaking little rambles – where she addresses mirrors or just herself, but it’s obvious she’s talking straight to the viewer – the depth of her sociopathy becomes ever more apparent. It starts with slightly off-colour musings on the nature of humanity – then descends into pure amorality (“I never feel sorry for the people that I hurt. Because I always hurt the right people”) – and becomes god-like narcissism (“Mice were made for cats, and this world was made for me”). Burke plays her with a cold detachment, and every violent thing she does is done with a matter-of-fact sensibility. There are only a few sudden rages, although the very real threat of violence is always there.

That’s where the film works best, as a stone-cold study of a sociopath. She’s a pathological liar with several aliases (each one starting with an “A”), and always eager to improve herself. In one moment of dark humour, she’s seen attending a “Torture Survivors” meeting (sort of like an “AA” meeting … but with mental and physical scars), and is blatantly seen taking notes tips for future reference (“Has anyone here been electrocuted? I hear it’s really bad”). But don’t mistake it for a comedy, although an awkward dinner scene and Agnes’s jaw-dropping un-PC behaviour will cause an unwarranted smile. Don’t mistake it for an example of “torture-porn” either.

The centre of the plot is the unhealthy relationship that gradually develops between Agnes and Mike. It’s obviously an allegory of domestic violence, but with the roles and stereotypes reversed from the usual depiction in movies. The male character goes from a cocksure swagger to an entirely dominated subservient. (NB: This gets misread by a BDSM fan at one point). It’s either an extreme case of Stockholm syndrome, or Agnes really is that damn scary. At any rate, the dysfunctional chemistry between the two remains a strong focus in the plot.

In some respects, it’s this concentration on the specifics between Agnes and Mike that is one of the less convincing aspects of the tale. Although it’s easy to judge from the outside, Mike seems to crumble and become in thrall to his female captor pretty quickly (although timeframes are hard to guess sometimes). In all honesty, it’s actually Agnes that is the most fascinating to watch, along with her interactions outside of her house (where we spend most of the time). Such as; going on dates with lonely guys (“I deserve to be adored”), trying to pawn silk ties from her last victim, and that inappropriate attendance at the survivors meeting. That central relationship is integral to the story, but it’s more “fun” to see Agnes play in a world where she sees herself as a natural predator. Tellingly, every single male is ineffectual and pretty dumb in the movie, with the only other “strong” character being a female cop. But even so, it doesn’t feel like a shamelessly feminist film. What we’re seeing could well be from the perspective of Agnes, who is telling the story after all. It hasn’t got that “American Psycho” twist though, if you’re expecting it. Although there is a nicely ambiguous ending…

The film looks great and performances are uniformly good (although Burke dominates most scenes). You do wish it would open up sometimes and we get a glimpse of what’s going on around Agnes, but that concentration on the character is obviously intentional and she’s compelling company… although we wouldn’t want to be in a room (or freezer) alone with the woman. All in all, this is an atypical “psycho” film. Nowhere near being a slasher, but more of a character study of a killer and the destructive relationships that she builds. Certainly not “poor” at all…

“Agnes” is a surprisingly accomplished character study, with some incisive points made about the nature of sociopaths and domestic abuse. It’s not a “message” film though, and Burke’s note-perfect performance carries a great deal of the impact of the film and character. It would have been nice to see more of Agnes interacting with society, and Mike’s actions feel a little forced, but otherwise this is a killer film…
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