Poor Agnes


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Lora Burke and Robert Notman in Poor Agnes
"Keenly observational and darkly erotic, Poor Agnes is a complex tale full of telling details."

Serious films that explore the world from a serial killer's point of view are few and far between, especially when their prime concern is not with the killing itself. Last year, Lost Solace wowed Frightfest; this year, Fantasia has discovered Poor Agnes, a still more accomplished look at life from the other side of an emotional gulf.

Although cinema is obsessed with serial killers as monsters, aside from rare exceptions like Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer and Psycho, few look at what they might be like as people. We meet Agnes at her isolated home in the woods, with its comfortable furniture and attractive views. She doesn't look like a monster. She seems relaxed and easy-going, if a little brusque. She's wide-eyed, blond haired and petite, but size doesn't matter when shotguns and syringes are involved.

Copy picture

Mike (Robert Notman) is a private detective, initially posing as a TV reporter, who's investigating the disappearance ten years previously of a depressive young man with whom Agnes was in a relationship. He believes, he admits, that the missing man is dead and that his parents would be wiser to spend their money on grief counselling. He doesn't seem suspicious, but Agnes can't afford to take chances. After seducing him, she drugs him and chains him up in her basement. But Mike is not the same as her previous victims. Agnes prides herself on being able to see what people need. She tends to skew this to suit her own desires, but in Mike she perceives something real: a deep desire to submit to the will of another. Her insistence that she hates him is no more believable than if she were a Fifties adventure heroine gazing at a hero. There's a mutual attraction here that goes beyond the sexual, and a strange romance develops.

If the genders were reversed in this story, there would be shocked headlines about it in all the tabloids. As is, it's still likely to offend many viewers, but a strong script and riveting performances from the two leads keep it believable. Mike doesn't surrender easily and he doesn't cease to think for himself. A scene shot from a distance in which he and Agnes bicker could be showing us any lovers' tiff. There is no hint of apologism; we receive constant reminders of Agnes' brutality, and of her otherness. One day, out in woods, she meets a young girl who is chasing a toad and they share a curious moment of bonding, recognition and respect passing between two predators.

Will Agnes kill Mike? She believes it will happen, sooner or later, even as the thought begins to bother her. There are bleakly comic moments as she tries to anticipate his emotional state only to discover that real human beings don't work like the ones on TV. On one occasion we a get a glimpse into her social life: a visit to a torture survivors' group. She tells a story which may or may not be true. Others present interpret her behaviour as a reaction to horrific trauma, but she's clearly enjoying their stories.

Tension ebbs and flows through the film in unexpected ways. When Agnes considers another possible victim, we might root for his survival, but he's a side issue, a distraction from the main plot, and so we are lured into seeing him the way she does - distracting, disposable, less human. In fact, he's one of several devices Agnes uses to up the ante whenever things are going well, as if some part of her can't abide the idea of a relationship that lasts, or can't face the fact that he might genuinely be a nice person. At times she endeavours to erase their difference; he recognises it and provides her with the kind of emotional support one might offer to a troubled child.

Keenly observational and darkly erotic, Poor Agnes is a complex tale full of telling details. Its themes of loneliness and doomed love turn cinematic logic against itself, and in exploring the monstrous it is more than normally humane.

Reviewed on: 19 Jul 2017
Share this with others on...
Poor Agnes packshot
A sadistic serial killer and the private detective she holds prisoner form an unlikely bond.

Director: Navin Ramaswaran

Writer: James Gordon Ross

Starring: Lora Burke, Amy Marie Wallace, Robert Notman, Will Conlon, Rodney Dwira, Kate Alice Phillips, Stan Alto, Dennis Austin, Philip Contardo

Year: 2017

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Canada

Search database: