While big-title horror releases continue to succeed at the box office in 2023, more experimental genre efforts are quietly finding a niche for themselves. Ari Aster’s (Hereditary, Midsommar) latest Beau Is Afraid challenges the traditional boundaries of what constitutes horror. Earlier this year, Skinamarink and The Outwaters challenged the notions of storytelling and narrative. Now British director Mark Jenkin goes one step further with the unconventional Enys Men. Though audiences may find the results polarizing, critics have largely liked what they’ve seen in Enys Men.
In 1973, a woman volunteers at a remote wildlife facility on a stony island off the Cornish coast. Day in and day out, she measures and inspects white flowers growing amongst the sparse shrub. As the days pass, however, the woman’s reality slowly crumbles around her.
Enys Men Adopts an Ambiguous Approach to Storytelling That Lacks Much in the Way of Story
From British writer and director Mark Jenkin, Enys Men lacks anything resembling a traditional narrative. Even the brief synopsis provided above extrapolates the premise based on what seems to be happening. The woman, played by Mary Woodvine and listed as ‘The Volunteer’ in the credits, may be a botanist working out of a rustic wildlife facility. But that may be just conjecture – nothing in Enys Men tell us anything about its character. In fact, the dialogue is as sparse as the island on which the movie sets itself. Everything we see could just be imagined by The Volunteer. But it’s The Volunteer’s rigid routine – and her notebook observations of the white flowers – that provides any sort of structure. After several days of ‘no change’, it’s the single note that a fungus, lichen, has suddenly appeared on the flowers – and her own body – that hints something may be wrong.
…Enys Men lacks anything resembling a traditional narrative.
Yet horror fans shouldn’t expect Enys Men to join the recent Gaia as an eco-horror about a fungi parasite. It’s not that the appearance of the lichen is a misdirection. Rather it is just one of several unexplained events that make you question what’s real on screen. Simply put, Jenkin is much more interested in symbolism than storytelling. Random cracklings on a transistor radio are nearly indecipherable. Nearly halfway into this psychological horror movie, a yellow raincoat seemingly predicts the inexplicable arrival of man credited as The Boatman. Little bits of imagery seem to connect The Boatman, The Volunteer, and randomly appearing younger woman. Maybe Enys Men is a metaphorical take on grief and isolation. Other intermitted imagery that pop up don’t easily fit into that interpretation.
Jenkin Re-Captures a Time Period and Aesthetic of Film-Making
Alongside its ambiguous, almost formless narrative, Enys Men paces itself like a barely coherent dream. That is, Jenkin adopts the kind of surrealist approach found in 70s movies like Phantasm or Let’s Scare Jessica To Death. With nothing really driving what’s on screen, Jenkin intentionally allows things to slowly unfold. In fact, the imagery itself, the increasing frequency of the inexplicable, and The Volunteer’s growing unease ratchet up something akin to a slow burn. Of course, slow burn is technically inaccurate because Enys Men doesn’t build towards anything – the movie just ends. Though there’s an uneasy atmosphere that hangs over the movie – and it’s often uneasy and occasionally scary – Jenkin isn’t worried about eliciting jumps.
…Jenkin’s most impressive feat is the extent to which he recreates a distinct way of filmmaking.
Arguably, Jenkin’s most impressive feat is the extent to which he recreates a distinct way of filmmaking. Specifically, Enys Men, which was shot on 16mm, looks and feels like a low-budget 70s movie evoking a vibe that heightens the psychological horror’s mood. This may be the movie’s strongest attribute as it works with the abstract imagery to make watching it an experience that takes precedence over conventional storytelling. Whether Enys Man and its midnight movie aesthetics will lend itself to repeat viewings remains to be seen.
Enys Men Will Likely Polarize Horror Fans With Its Ambiguous Narrative
Enys Men joins Skinamarink and The Outwaters as another eclectic mix of psychological and experimental art-house horror. But Jenkin’s second directorial effort may be even less accessible than either of those two aforementioned movies. Don’t expect anything resembling a narrative, let alone a traditional story. Jenkin prefers a heavily atmospheric and metaphysical approach with little connecting the images on the screen. Critics and film studies students will enjoy pondering over the symbolism. However, Enys Men makes for a difficult straightforward recommendation for average horror fans who may grow tired of the ambiguity.