Saturday, 22 July 2017

POOR AGNES - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Fantasia 2017 presents gender-reversed serial killer

Serial killer in the birthplace of Paul Shaffer.
Poor Agnes (2017)
Dir. Navin Ramaswaran
Scr. James Gordon Ross
Starring: Lora Burke, Robert Notman, Will Conlon

Review By Greg Klymkiw

These days, when the first image in a movie is an aerial shot of a lone house in the deep woods, the heart usually sinks because it signals the inevitability that we're probably going to be spending most of the remaining running time at that location in a picture of the no-to-low-budget variety. This doesn't have to be a bad thing if the content is worthy, but Poor Agnes gets off to a very wrong start with the opening voiceover accompanying this familiar image as the title character intones:

"Men murder whores. Women murder their babies. What does that make me?"

Uh, I don't know. A whore, perchance? Maybe. But, you see, Agnes (Lora Burke) is clearly alive and continues to utter some pseudo-poetic nonsense from her bed with a heavy tone of portent. She's not dead and as such, not a whore murdered by a man.

We follow her into the basement as she opens a freezer full of meat to select a little something for dinner. She considers the array of comestibles, selects decidedly, but before slamming the lid shut, our ruminating lassie glances over to the back corner of the freezer and regards the frozen head of a grown man, his face locked into a ghoulish death grimace.


She is not a woman who's murdered her baby nor a whore murdered by a man. Agnes is, however, a killer. If she isn't, how did that frozen head get there? In any event, we are grateful, since she gets an answer to her vaguely rhetorical, if not downright existential question.

And so it is that Agnes has lived for over a decade in this beautiful old country house in Thunder Bay, Ontario (birthplace of longtime David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer) with no visible means of support. At one point she reveals that her now-dead parents left her quite a sizeable estate, but she proves, time and time again, to be such an inveterate liar that it's impossible to believe this or anything else she says. Given that the script is littered with bonbons that strain credulity, it feels like something shoehorned in to explain her lack of anything resembling a livelihood (save for killing a parade of men and occasionally pawning their belongings).

When a private detective (Robert Notman) shows up to question her about an old boyfriend who's been missing for ten years, sparks fly twixt the two. We get plenty of provocative quipping a la Billy (Double Indemnity) Wilder (though in reality, the repartee comes closer to approximating the already-derivative banter Lawrence Kasdan belched out in Body Heat). Well, before you can spit out the title of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, the couple are grappling amorously with each on the kitchen counters and floors. No coitus interruptus, either. Our dick-for-hire finishes bareback inside of her and in no time, she trains a double-barrelled shotgun in his direction, plunges a hypodermic needle into his arm, renders him unconscious, chains him up, tortures him and slowly employs Stockholm Syndrome techniques to turn him into her acquiescent boy-toy.

Agnes is a firm believer in the spice of life that is variety and soon kidnaps another hapless fella. Now she's got our submissive detective to become a willing participant in torturing her new victim and, it seems, possibly killing him.

If it wasn't for the brave star-making performance of leading lady Lora Burke (she fires out her lines with the straight-faced panache of Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell and even Jean Arthur - pretty amazing that she's playing a serial killer), it would be near impossible to swallow any of the film's proceedings. Though screenwriter James Gordon Ross has clearly done his homework on the machinations of Stockholm Syndrome, it's simply not enough to buy all the opportunities the kidnapped dick has to escape and/or fight back. His character is weirdly underwritten. Though at one point, when a grocery cashier notices his wrist bruises and happily chirps, "You're a sub!", these "qualities" in his character are merely trotted out as a script convenience rather than being skilfully woven into the narrative.

One of the stupidest (and jaw-drippongly WTF) moments actually occurs when another private detective shows up at Le Maison de Agnes to ask questions about the missing dick. He reveals that the character has a reputation for "hanging around in low social circles" (more convenient character shoehorning) and even more ridiculous is when he says to Agnes, "Don't take it personally, but, are you a prostitute?" I'm sorry. What experienced detective, or anyone for that matter, would ask a question like this? It's an idiotically offensive question and in fairness to the script, Agnes reacts appropriately to it, BUT what is this line of dialogue doing there in the first place? Yes, it might be intentional on the part of the filmmakers to add a dollop of the kind of patriarchy women must put up with, but the delivery of the line is so absurdly chipper and oh-so polite that it's not only unintentionally funny, but brings into question the intentions of the film, submerged or otherwise.

Poor Agnes often feels vaguely misogynistic. While I'm grateful to the filmmakers that they provide no real reason/explanation for Agnes's psychopathic tendencies, what feels horrendously machine-tooled is the idea of taking a typical serial killer story (which always involves men kidnapping, torturing and killing women) and reversing the gender roles, for no other reason than this - they can! They seem to think (at worst) it's "cool" and at best (if we can call it that), that they're making some sort of point about sociopathic tendencies in women (and by extension, how they are treated and/or ignored in the movies). Either way, this is not good enough. The whole thing feels rotten to the core. It's too bad. The director clearly has some talent for more-than-adequately capturing the visceral elements of suspense and the leading lady serves up one of the best performances I've seen in a long time, but neither of these things are enough to wash out the foul taste the picture leaves in one's mouth.

The movie just doesn't add up. It's impossible to buy that Agnes has been doing this for years and has never been caught, especially considering some of the mistakes she makes during the final third of the film which seem to conveniently ignore how meticulous her murderous machinations have been. I usually try to avoid writing about independent films that are this mediocre, but the combination of the moral repugnancy of the whole movie with its considerable flaws, forces me to do so. Too many "critics" and even those who should know better, might potentially fall for the picture's trick-pony styling and sometimes it's important to not just point fingers at the myriad of studio pictures sharing these woeful attributes.

I was also tempted not to mention the boneheaded scene wherein Agnes wanders through the empty hallways of a school, the walls adorned with children's artwork and comes upon a sign that reads: "Torture Survivor Meetup". (Yup, she attends to get torture ideas.) I cannot help myself. This bears mentioning. Sorry, most self-help group meetings avoid such signage, but even if they didn't, the timing of the cut to the shot of the sign inspires unintentional howls of laughter. And, MEETUP? What is this? A kaffeeklatsch for victims of torture?

No surprise. There's far too much in this movie that feels unintentional and its intentions feel wrongheaded.


Poor Agnes enjoyed its World Premiere at Fantasia 2017.