I used to think it might be kind of nice to live on a secluded island and get away from all the noise. But after watching writer/director Mark Jenkin’s abstract horror flick steeped in Celtic folklore, Enys Men, I’m reconsidering that idea.
Set in 1973 and following a wildlife volunteer (Mary Woodvine) as she studies a rare flower on an uninhabited island off the Cornish coast, Enys Men takes a turn for the weird when the unfortunate gal discovers lichen growing on the flowers and begins to question the deterioration of her own mind.
At once fascinating and as dull as a clump of seaweed, Enys Men is a film that requires a great deal of patience from the viewer without much payoff for those expecting a concrete resolution.
Early on, Jenkin’s establishes the repetitive monotony of the Volunteer’s life. We watch as she studies her flowers. Drops a rock down a well. Passes the strange statue near her rustic home. Starts the generator. Makes the same unchanged note in her journal. Drinks tea. And reads from a book entitled “A Blueprint for Survival” by candlelight. Rinse and repeat. Over, and over, and over. That may sound boring—and well, it is—but that feels like the intent. Jenkins wants us to understand how lonely this woman’s life is, despite living with who we presume is her daughter (Flo Crowe), who hardly appears at all during this routine. Combine that with Woodvine’s expressive, seafoam-colored eyes and the all-around quiet but for an eerie score, and Enys Men begins to have a hypnotizing effect. So much so that it’s startling once this sequence of events is suddenly interrupted with the change of the flowers.
Through it all, Jenkins lulls the viewer into a false sense of comfort, sprinkling in subtle hints that something isn’t right here. We learn from a radio broadcast that the island is home to a tragic boat crash, and that the statue outside the Volunteer’s home is a monument of collective grief for those that have lost family. The woman has ghostly visions of others, from a Boatman (Edward Rowe) to a Miner (Joe Gray) and odd images like the young girl standing on the roof of the house. All of it comes and goes, with little reaction from the woman. The audience has no idea what’s real and what’s not, only that it is all very strange as Jenkins pulls us down into this psychological descent like a hungry undertow. Enys Men drowns the audience in unexplainable strangeness.
More eerie than scary, Enys Men is a creeping journey along the sea of the mind. Rarely does it ever shock the viewer. Instead, the goal seems to be in making you squirm like a worm on a hook. Some of that is out of frustration over the slog of a narrative. But the rest comes from that uneasy feeling of change. Watching Enys Men conjures fears akin to finding an unwelcome mole on your flesh. What does it mean? Should you worry, or is it simply benign? The stress of that, that uncomfortable change, is the feeling which rolls through Jenkins’ film in waves. You’re lured so deeply into this woman’s life, that something as small as her running out of tea plunges she and the viewer into a panic. What will this woman do without her tea!? I sound like I’m kidding—I am, to a degree—but Jenkins manages to instill a sense of worry through these minute yet impactful occurrences.
A coastal fever-dream which moves at the pace of a gentle wave before a third act which crashes into the rocks with a loud fury, Enys Men offers up a ghostly tale for a select set of viewers. Don’t like atmospheric horror that relies more on weird imagery than dialogue or exciting scares (both of which there is very little of)? This probably isn’t for you. Those of us that find ourselves wanting to unpack every frame of a film? Enys Men offers intrigue in spades. Even the title itself is curious, with Enys as a Celtic word meaning “circle” or “island”. Then there’s the Celtic folklore surrounding the statue, hints of cults and what exactly is going on here. It may not pull you to the edge of your seat, but Enys Men is a film that haunts you. It has the effect of a siren’s call. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Strange. Mesmerizing. Tedious as hell. Enys Men is a mixed bag that will surely be divisive amongst those who dredge it up from the ocean of films floating out there. It relies solely on an atmospheric experience like being dunked in a sensory depravation tank. Whether you discover it to be pirate’s gold or a rotting piece of wood, one thing is for sure; Jenkins is a unique voice walking you off the plank into a Celtic haunter that sticks to your brain like a barnacle.
Enys Men washes ashore and into limited theaters March 31st from Neon.
By Matt Konopka