Poor Agnes is an in-depth and, at times, deeply disturbing look inside the mind of a depraved serial killer. The film stars Lora Burke as the petite but massively powerful Agnes, a forthright, mentally unstable young woman with a penchant for bloodlust. Despite believing it to be a waste of his time, an arrogant private investigator named Mike (Robert Notman) ends up at Agnes’ home to solve the decade-old missing persons case of her high school friend. After Mike bad-mouths the friend in question, Agnes decides to teach him how to be a better person by means of captivity and torture. For months, Mike is subjected to beatings, stabbings, and verbal abuse as his abductor satisfies her cravings for brutality.
The direction by Navin Ramaswaran, along with artistic choices made by Burke and Notman, create a moody, uncomfortable atmosphere- in the best way possible. Through tiny interactions and facial expressions, we see that Agnes’ madness is growing, while Mike slowly surrenders himself to her every whim. We see this co-occurrence several times, an example of which is one scene wherein Mike neglects to finish all the food on his plate. Agnes looks down at him disapprovingly, as though thoroughly annoyed, and tells him he knows what he needs to do. Almost willingly, Mike picks up a knife and searches for a unscarred area on his arm. He casually asks where he should stab himself this time, to which he receives the reply that it’s up to him to decide because it’s his punishment. Mike finds a clear area and plunges the knife into himself. Agnes seems to take delight in this, while Mike only reacts minimally despite his obvious pain. The scene is cringe-worthy and repulsive on a human level, while somehow attractive on the horror film level.
Apart from violence and psychological terror, Poor Agnes showcases beautiful writing by James Gordon Ross. Throughout the film, Agnes is raunchy, crass, and resorts to politically incorrect jokes and name-calling. However, she also delivers several thoughtful, intelligent, and compelling soliloquies. Ross’ ability to disturb viewers with sharing Agnes’ innermost morbid thoughts while allowing the audience to reflect inwardly and acknowledge their own dark side is inspired. There are moments that feel a bit contrived, such as when Agnes all but blurts out what happened to her missing friend, but overall the writing is thought-provoking and the story flows naturally.
It’s worth mentioning that this film does have a few stark flaws. The bold but jarring choice to have Agnes speak directly into the camera multiple times seems like a misstep. Nothing else in the movie suggests that the audience plays a part in the film in any way, and most of her soliloquies are personal thoughts. Because of this, it seems very out of place when Agnes breaks the fourth wall.
Additionally, the story is not paced well enough. Agnes takes Mike captive very quickly and we see a few instances of verbal and physical abuse. Soon after, it’s mentioned that 6 weeks have gone by. It felt like only a few days had passed, at most. This is because hardly any time passed between scenes of torture and when Mike’s identity began to crumble. Compare this to the similarly torture-heavy film Martyrs (2008), which manages to skillfully craft a long timeline by intercutting scenes of violence with scenes of rebellion, then despair and introspection, and finally apathy. Had Poor Agnes done this, the impact of later scenes- not the least of which is the climax- would have been just that much greater.
Despite these detractions, Poor Agnes is a wonderful addition to contemporary independent horror. This film manages to balance violence and the abhorrent behavior of its title character with artistic filmmaking and writing in an interesting way. While the story is not necessarily groundbreaking, it is executed well and conjures feelings of revulsion, secondhand embarrassment, and paranoia— which is all Poor Agnes really aims to do.