Misery Loves Company – A Review of ‘Poor Agnes’

“I’m sorry, I don’t like you. You’re unlikable.”

To fully understand  the clear disdain that Agnes (Lora Burke) has for humanity, look no further than the contents of her freezer. She has little use for others aside from killing them. But then private investigator Mike (Robert Notman) arrives at her door. He’s looking into the disappearance of one of Agnes’s earliest victims, and before Mike knows it, he’s about to become one himself. Agnes doesn’t have a quick death in mind for Mike. She toys with him, subjecting him to physical and psychological torture. And just when it seems like he can’t take much more, the fever of pain breaks. Agnes eases up and Mike begins to comply with her every command. What follows is a dark and unnerving look at domestic contentment that can only last as long as Agnes’s murderous tendencies, which isn’t very long at all.

Poor Agnes, directed by Navin Ramaswaran and written by James Gordon Ross, is potent jolt of nastiness in an unassuming package, much like it’s titular character. Agnes can walk among the rest of the world, camouflaged as a normal human being when inside, if by some chance she even has a soul, it would more closely resemble Henry and Otis from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. But most fascinating about her is a need for connection, possibly the last sliver of humanity left in her. She treats with her prey like play things, like a cat that’s caught a mouse, but holds on longer than she should. She’s not just prolonging Mike’s torture; she needs him in her life.

Once Mike has fully succumbed to Stockholm syndrome, he and Agnes establish a tenuous equilibrium. Though the film’s violence shocks, the quieter moments prove to be the most unsettling. One scene in particular, Agnes and Mike appear to be lounging in the living room. She’s sitting up in a chair, writing in her journal; he’s spread out on the couch. In the wide shot, you can just barely notice she has the shotgun in her lap or that the bruising from handcuffs are visible on his wrists. If not for these details, they could be perceived as a normal couple enjoying a quiet, lazy day. Thinking about this moment gives me goosebumps.

Before long, Agnes is on the hunt again. Perhaps she’s growing bored with Mike or perhaps she just has an itch to scratch. But with Mike still in the picture, she strives to make him complicit in the torture and murder of shy but kind Chris (Will Conlon). The depravity is taken up a notch, as evident in a dinner table scene in which Agnes mocks Chris’s slurring of a prayer. Mike remains loyal and submissive to Agnes, but also assumes a paternal protectiveness of Chris. Tension builds knowing that this twisted family portrait is going to collapse, but we never know how or when. As much as Agnes asserts her control, she’s never taken this much on all at once.

Strong performances from the entire cast solidify the film under Ramaswaran’s assured direction. The film continues to surprise and unsettle as it unfolds (including some lighter moments of humor) before it culminates in an ending that’ll haunt you as much as it does one of the leads. It’s a worthy entry into the pantheon of serial killer films and will entertain any who dare watch it.

Poor Agnes has its Toronto premiere tomorrow, October 18th, at Toronto After Dark. Then keep an eye out for at Chicago’s Cinepocalypse on November 5th.