Written and directed by Mark Jenkin
On an island off the Cornish coast, a woman has a simple job: every morning, she walks down to the cliffs, has a look at some flowers growing there, and records the temperature of the ground next to them. Then she walks back, stopping by an old mine shaft to drop a rock down it, and logs her observations once home.
She lives alone out here, the island a windswept rock pounded by waves and beset by shrubs and moss. Scenic, if monotone. It used to have a small mining operation, back when candlelight broke up the darkness, and a church to suggest there was a better place waiting. All long gone now. As the days drag on, visions (real or imagined?) begin haunting the woman, and soon it’s impossible to tell what is terrible reality or delirious nightmare.
Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men is a folksy psych-horror that doubles down on 70s aesthetics and production values to appear more gritty and unpredictable, and Jenkins, a one man band whose duties include directing, writing, cinematography, music, sound editing, and editing, has accomplished something eerie. Unfortunately, the only scary elements are found in the film’s unbalanced audio levels, with the jackhammering racket of the generator the woman powers her home with providing the biggest jump scares.
Enys Men builds very little momentum over its runtime, spending most of its first act trying to put its viewer into some sort of trance before spinning the world out from underneath them, but it never escalates into terror and your feet remain firmly planted throughout. Jenkin shows little feel for the ebb and flow of tension, letting every ominous whoosh flatline before starting back up. The end result is a horror that rarely has you jolt in your seat, let alone on the edge of it.
Part of that could be the lack of stakes. The protagonist is never given a name (emblematic of how unfinished she seems) and is more a placeholder than an actual protagonist. The consequence is that anything that may befall her elicits as much of an emotional response as seeing the wind playacting at tipping over your patio furniture. Something like: “Hey, c’mon, leave her alone. She never hurt nobody.”
Similarly, both the narrative and plot is broken up and nothing of substance offered, with Jenkin focused on keeping you disoriented and wrongfooted. He seems to have forgotten you have to give people a reason to step inside your movie first.
Technically, there are some things to note in Enys Men. The aforementioned gritty texture is accompanied by unsettling sound design that feels artificial yet claustrophobic in its deceptive distance. The crinkle of a jacket is right up against your ear, the crunch of soil underneath a boot grates, and the hiss of a radio scratches your ear drums. Herein lies most of the eeriness of Enys Men, and if you take the playful sound design away, I’m afraid the film is almost quaint with its landscape photography, long cuts, and straightforward framing.
Ultimately, Enys Men is a quaint ghost story that boos and moans but won’t have anyone shrieking. A visual curiosity that won’t scare you away as its mostly daylit (in)action fails to grab hold of you in its disjointment that it mistakes for unpredictability.