ENYS MEN Review: An Island, Isolation, and Mind Tricks Everywhere
Mark Jenkin’s latest feature-length film takes a deep dive into psychological fragmentation
By definition, folk horror centers on the conflict between paganism, Christianity, and (super) natural forces. It also involves folklore that either existed before the advent of Christianity or stubbornly developed alongside the monotheistic faith, functioning both as counterpoint and contrast, though Christianity, like most world religions, has been syncretic by tradition, absorbing and re-purposing local beliefs, rituals, and holy sites. Those key elements of folk horror plays an essential role in Mark Jenkin’s (Bait) experimental horror film, Enys Men (literally “Stone Island”). Deliberately emphasizing abstract imagery and fragmented soundscapes over narrative coherence and interpretative clarity, Enys Men delivers a singularly provocative, challenging moviegoing experience.
Set in 1973 on a lone, isolated island off the coast of Cornwall (England), Enys Men focuses on an unnamed volunteer (Mary Woodvine) to spend days, weeks, even months away from the equivalent of civilization on the English mainland as she carefully charts the progress of a strange, possibly alien flower. Every day, wearing seemingly identical clothes, including a bright red overcoat, she ventures outside her home, traipsing across inhospitable, stony ground, eventually reaching a cliff where she takes the temperature of the ground and observes the unique flower for any visible change. Noting none, she fills a notebook with the same, simple message, “No change.” Until, of course, it does.
The volunteer curiously notices lichen growing on one of the plants, excitedly noting the development in her log. So far, so (apparently) normal, but when she discovers a similar-looking lichen growing on a keloid scar on her stomach, the obvious result of some unexplained injury or trauma, Enys Men, already slipping into an oneiric state where dreams, hallucinations, and memories meet, merge, and diverge, falls headlong into surreality. A discordant, disjointed stream of images follow, including a young woman who may or may not be real, who may or may not be a projection of the volunteer’s rapidly fragmenting mind.
Reflecting the volunteer’s tortured psyche, Enys Men doesn’t so much follow a traditional narrative structure as rebel against it. Even when a mainlander arrives in a boat to deliver much-needed supplies, it’s unclear whether he’s real, a convenient fiction created by a troubled mind, or possibly a mix of both. Even before he arrives, the volunteer begins to suffer from a series of disturbing, disquieting visions involving children apparently engaged in a ritual game of some kind, the apparent ghosts of miners who once worked the abandoned mines on the island, and women, dressed in the austere clothing of milk maids drawn from packaging in the volunteer’s temporary dwelling.
Collaborating with his partner, longtime TV veteran Mary Woodvine (she appears in practically every scene), Jenkin’s wrote, shot, and directed Enys Men to make it look, sound, and feel like a long-list ’70s film, a film that would easily feel of a piece with the so-called “Unholy Trinity” (The Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man) and, more recently, The Lighthouse. To that end, Jenkin’s used 16mm film, a boxy aspect ratio, and added splices, cuts, and other imperfections to the film print. Based on the available evidence onscreen, working from a limited budget on location with COVID restrictions in place did little to diminish Jenkin’s creative expression.
Likely to the frustration of some or even many members of the audience on the other side of the screen, Jenkin fully embraces the interpretative ambiguity inherent in the premise, offering few answers and a proliferating series of questions about the nature of identity, the effects of isolation, and unresolved trauma.
Enys Men opens theatrically on Friday, March 31st, via Neon.