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Poor Agnes
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by Jay Seaver

"Branching out from serial killer to psychological torture."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Poor Agnes" twists almost constantly on the way from where it starts to where it ends, playing on audience expectations of human behavior as opposed to genre standards, and it makes for a constant unnerving sort of horror. It's a movie about a monster that places her insanity closer to front and center than is typical but in doing so pushes the viewer to want to get closer, even though he or she has seen early on what a dangerous thing that is.

Agnes (Lora Burke) is a serial killer, although her narration never uses those words, though it's clear from how she disposes of her latest victim that she's figured out a lot of what she needs to do it without a lot of fuss or threat of getting caught, paying attention to everything from physical fitness and which pawnbrokers will pay for the possessions without too many questions. As much as she tries, though, you can't make anyone disappear completely, as she discovers when Mike Mercer (Robert Notman) approaches her on behalf of the parents of one of her first victims from when she was just a teenager ten years ago. Seducing him is easy enough, but what to do next? He doesn't quite fit the profile of her regular victim, but he's getting too close to the truth.

Or at least, that's the train of thought that many will ascribe to Agnes in these moments because the people in the audience are generally sane, and they'll grab onto her narration talking about killing "the right people", or they'll consider that the basically linear way events tend to play out means that Agnes taking notes and asking unusual questions at a torture survivors' meeting as being signs that this is the first time she's really decided to mess with someone rather than just kill them. Writer James Gordon Ross and director Navin Ramaswaran spend a lot of time playing off how the audience wants to find something admirable in the protagonist. There's got to be a motive we can understand or root for, some underlying justice being accomplished by her action, but the script keeps yanking that away even as it keeps putting something else just within reach until the viewer is as committed to Agnes despite her madness as Mike is.

Yes, Agnes is a monster, but as such, she's a great part for Lora Burke. Burke plays her as a sociopath but almost like a chirpy comic part, like a chirpy Amy Poehler or Kristen Wiig supporting character given the full movie to show how unhinged that sort of person would seem if you follow her for more than five minutes at a stretch. Burke plays Agnes with relatively little affect, but not as blank or emotionless, although genuine emotion mostly appears when Agnes is by herself, with what appears in her earlier scenes with Robert Notman or Will Conlon clearly put on to the audience - there's a slight hesitation before any outburst - but convincing enough that it's easy enough to buy into Mike or her guy on the side Chris believing her.

It's an impressive enough job to counter moments which may give the viewer doubt - the film is kind of casual with how quickly and seemingly without fuss a new but enthusiastic torturer can break someone, and while Notman's retreat to an inward-facing performance is likely believable, it's sometimes kind of difficult for the viewer to dig into. It is, nevertheless, kind of fascinating; Ross and Ramaswaran make sure to make what Agnes is doing to mess with Mike's mind clear, even if she's not walking the audience through her tactics. It's not quite a primer on psychological manipulation and torture, but most of what she does will make the viewer see how her methods work but not fault Mike for being manipulated.

As the film goes on, things become interestingly unpredictable - Agnes's narration becomes more overtly sociopathic and narcissistic even as she becomes more attached to Mike, and for that matter wavers between something out of a diary and something addressed directly to the audience. The last act especially introduces a lot of nervy potential randomness to the proceedings, reminding the audience just how much of Agnes's success may have come from controlling the environment.

All in all, it's an intriguingly unpredictable thriller, and hopefully one that will get a lot of casting directors looking at Lora Burke. It's dark and subdued material, certainly, but always keeps the audience wondering where it will go next.

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originally posted: 07/21/17 04:12:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/21/17 Chaz Walter Compelling storyline and idea for a film. 5 stars
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Directed by
  Navin Ramaswaran

Written by
  J. Gordon Ross

  Lora Burke
  Will Conlon
  Robert Notman

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