'Enys Men' Review
March 19, 2023
Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men is the kind of film you stumble upon late at night as a kid on a public access channel while you are staying over at your grandparents’ old summer house. That description may be too ultra-specific for most people to relate to, but watching this movie lovingly took me back to those youthful nights when you had no idea what you were watching and if it was any good, but you couldn’t help but be endlessly transfixed by it.
In true David Lynch fashion - a figure Jenkin takes much influence from, including having similar total creative control by filling the positions of writer/director/cinematographer/composer/sound designer – the plot of Enys Men is entirely dependent upon what you put into it. Speaking to The Guardian in December, Jenkin described his favorite movies as ones “that take you into the woods. You don’t know what the fuck is going on… then they leave you there.”
Taking place on the titular island, with “Men” using the Cornish pronunciation of “main,” meaning “stone island,” Jenkin’s looping story follows a woman (Mary Woodvine) simply named The Volunteer. She seems to be a researcher observing the growth of a rare species of flower on a remote island somewhere off the coast of Cornwall. Her day follows the same pattern: she wakes up and strolls down to the cliff to record the soil temperature and observe the petals, tosses a rock down the abandoned mine shaft, returns to her small cottage, and records her notes for the day. The OCD-level repetition of this ritual leads to a sleepy sense of banality for the woman and the viewer, with our instinctual expectation that the cycle will eventually be broken going through several rounds of testing.
But just as your eyes and senses tire out after the first half hour, Jenkin snaps you awake like a Catholic teacher with a ruler, with unsettling imagery and sounds slowly burned into your memory. There’s nothing purely horrifying about the hallucinations and strange events that fall upon our woman. Still, there is a heavy amount of discomfort and dread that they instill, keeping you in fearful excitement of what’s coming next. Clues of the overarching narrative are dripped through eerie radio recordings and historical landmarks, yet nothing seems to be set in stone (pun intended).
Just as he did with his 2019 debut feature Bait, Jenkin goes ultra-low tech by shooting on scratchy 16mm and recording all sound in post-production. It’s as if this was a lost film that had just been unearthed on an abandoned island, rotting away for years until being saved at the last minute. Woodvine’s stark red jacket is the sole bit of lively color, sticking out like a sore thumb against the muted green and brown landscape. Her sparse dialogue is raspy and cold, hinting at long-buried torment, something that may lead a person to seclude themselves on an island for months on end.
Neon’s wonderful, yet entirely misleading, trailer for Enys Men may signal it to be too experimental for the casual viewer. But just as Ari Aster and Robert Eggers have amassed cult followings for their new-wave style of horror, Jenkin deserves the same for his now-signature trips down the psychological rabbit hole. The beckoning of Hollywood doesn’t seem to be having much effect on him, promising more distinctly singular work from this up-and-coming artist.