Imagine a grown up Tracy Flick who tires of the cut throat world of politics and decides to trade that life in for one of literally cutting throats. That’s the main hook and sole bit of pleasure one can find in Navin Ramaswaran’s POOR AGNES, which just made its world premiere at Fantasia. British actress Lora Burke plies each of the conflicting personalities of the titular character with aplomb, and it;s a shame that the material and supporting characters surrounding her fail to rise to her level.
Burke plays Agnes, a twenty something serial killer hiding in plain sight. She makes no effort to conceal her crimes, offing one victim in the back of her van moments before crossing the street to pawn of his watch. When Mike, a private investigator hired to look into the disappearance of her first victim a decade earlier shows up on her doorstep to ask a few questions, Agnes’ dormant defense mechanisms kick in. Minutes after seducing the smitten P.I. Agnes has him chained up in her basement. Over time she breaks her captive down by withholding food and water, by psychologically tormenting him and by rewarding compliance with sexual favors her enthralled captive is helpless to resist. Before long, Mike finds himself unable to leave her, even if he doesn’t condone her callous regard for life.
Ramaswaran builds POOR AGNES around the dynamic between Agnes and Mike. Unfortunately for viewers, Burke gives a tsunami of a performance, obliterating everything in her wake. Notman’s performance feels slight and trivial by comparison. It doesn’t help that the single direction he seemed to receive was to act like a less masculine Zach Braff. Notman’s singular expression throughout the film could best be described as “kicked puppy.” Further, there’s a black hole of nothingness in place of any chemistry that should exist between the two leads.
It doesn’t help that Ramaswaran never quite knows what he wants Agnes to be. At times she’s calm and calculating in a way that invokes comparisons to Michael Rook in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. There’s a social detachment in many of her interactions that suggests the character has Aspergers. However, her numerous emotional outbursts and her complete disregard for covering up her crimes in even the most cursory of ways pull the audience out of the story and make it impossible to suspend disbelief that she could go undetected for so long. The one trait of Agnes the film makes it a point to hammer home is the fact that she is a slave to her sexual impulses.
This becomes all the more apparent with the introduction of Chris, a nerdy computer program Agnes seduces while Mike lies chained up in bed at home. Chris is a sad sack, and completely over his head and out of his depth when it comes to dealing with Agnes, a fact he seems completely aware of. Out boredom or psychosis Agnes abducts Chris outside his place of work, in broad daylight, and before you know it the nebbish programmer winds up a paralyzed pet for Mike to take care of. Once again, the reasons for this, and for Mike’s continued loyalty to Agnes remain unclear. Mike is dead set against hurting other people and by this time, even the promise of sex with Agnes leaves him cold and aloof. Rather than strengthen the bond between the captive and jailor, Chris’ presence just adds more confusion to an already muddled, meandering picture.
In the end, POOR AGNES is a misfire. There was a golden opportunity to explore a hyper sexual, female serial killer. However a meandering, go nowhere plot and weak characters sink the film.