The movie centers around “The Volunteer” (Mary Woodvine), a woman who is tasked with keeping a daily log of what happens on a hill she’s inhabiting on an isolated island. She wakes up, checks on a handful of flowers, measures the ground temperature, then she walks around and throws a rock into a deep hole in the ground. She takes a look at a distinct-shaped rock, and then goes back to a house in which she writes a very short report in front of a radio communicator. Finally, she goes to a backyard, turns on a red machine and calls it a day.
You’d never know it from this synopsis, but Enys Men is brimming with horror elements. But it’s the kind of story that tells you its genre without really telling you. Instead, it lets its elements speak for themselves. The first major indication is the eerie and discomforting soundtrack. It suggests this is not a friendly environment for The Volunteer to inhabit. Then there’s the production design that doesn’t make the environment inviting at all. Mark Jenkin’s direction also establishes repeatedly that The Volunteer is completely isolated, which is the perfect set-up for the protagonist to start letting her mind wander. Then, there are the more obvious clues, like The Volunteer’s red coat evoking danger outside the house, the pitch-black dark nights she has to brave, and the curiously titled handbook ‘A Blueprint for Survival.’
Then great cinema comes into play. It is the kind that lets you peel off the layers of the story on your own. You could look at Enys Men simply as a biologist witnessing the growth of a rare flower, but Jenkin’s script certainly gives you more than that to work with. A painting on the wall suggests the isolated island is a lot more than it seems and it also could answer why a rock is thrown down a hole every day. In any case, the story is open enough to allow multiple interpretations.
Enys Men also does a good job of putting us inside the protagonist’s mind. Just like her, we slowly start to question what we’re witnessing on the screen. Characters appear and disappear out of the blue. Was that an illusion or an actual event? Is that present or past? Are those two characters really interacting or are we assuming that? The answers come slowly. A scar shown in the beginning transforms into an answer to another question in the end, a voice in the radio ask questions we’d like to know the answers to.
Of course, you can’t know for sure all the answers to what is going on in Enys Men, but it’s a pleasure just to be able to try to figure it out. It’s the kind of movie that invites reflection and challenges you to find meaning in wide and continuous shots, and lets you take a peek into and revel around a quiet and slow-paced life we’re all in dire need of these days.
The most extraordinary thing about cinema are the endless stories that the camera is able to tell and the many ways that we can tell it. Enys Men can be just an enjoyable ride as Everything Everywhere All At Once or Avatar: The Way of Water, you just need to approach it the right way. It’s the kind of story that benefits from multiple viewings, and you’re sure to find something new every time you revisit it.
Enys Men is the kind of movie that proves there’s hardly one formula to tell a story on the big screen. The lack of dialogue helps the viewer get inside the protagonist’s mind and start to wonder what kind of situation she’s living in, as well as why some thoughts pop into her head. It’s open enough to be perceived as a character study, a horror story, or something different altogether. But what is indisputable is the movie’s excellent use of wide shots and close-ups, the gorgeous production design and cinematography, and Woodvine’s quiet but compelling performance.
Enys Men is in theaters now.