Enys Men is an experimental folk horror film set in the 1970s on a small, uninhabited island. (The title is Cornish for “stone island.) The film follows a woman known to us only as The Volunteer (Mary Woodvine), who spends her days on the island recording observations about a particular flower. However, over time she begins to experience strange phenomena that leaves the audience questioning the nature of reality.

Enys Men is stylish and experimental

The opening of Enys Men introduces us to The Volunteer’s routine. Every day, she dons her red raincoat and walks the same path across the island to reach a specific bunch of flowers. She takes the temperature, observes the flowers, walks back across the island. She drops a rock down into an open mineshaft. When she arrives back at her cottage, she starts a generator for power and has tea, noting her daily observations simply and neatly in a notebook.

It’s all very mundane…until small aspects of her well-worn day begin to shift and change around her.

If nothing else, it has to be said that Enys Men is a great film to look at. Shot on 16mm, it’s got that perfect grainy, crunchy look that makes it feel like the movie was really filmed in the early ‘70s when it takes place. 

Writer/director Mark Jenkin carefully composes shots, from sweeping views of the island to lingering close-ups on individual flowers or the main character’s hands in motion. It’s deeply atmospheric; you really feel transported to the very specific place and time in which the film takes place. As the events on the island get stranger and more inexplicable, so does the film’s structure and editing, blurring the lines between past and present, real and unreal.

That said, Enys Men too often comes across as a case of style over substance. Sure, it looks beautiful. But it can also feel like a lot of incomprehensible bits thrown together. This is a film that escalates, but arguably doesn’t pay off that escalation with an impactful culmination.

Dreamlike uncertainty shoots for thrills, but often falls flat

Enys Men has a sort of dream-like quality to it. As we follow The Volunteer on her day-to-day routine, things slowly begin to shift. Buildings appear where there weren’t any before. Apparitions of island inhabitants past come and go at will. A growth on the flowers she’s observing begins to appear on her own skin.

Sometimes The Volunteer reacts to these occurrences; other times she doesn’t. Sometimes she views them with indifference; other times, she appears fearful or distressed. It’s often difficult to determine what’s real, what’s a dream or hallucination, and whether or not the difference even matters to the character we’re following. We’re never fully inside her head, kept at a distance from everything she’s feeling and experiencing.

And too often, The Volunteer seems unmoved by it all; I think that’s why the film can sometimes feel eerie, but never really escalates into the horror I expected when I first watched the trailer. (If she’s not bothered by her largely benign hallucinations, why should I be?)

In that way, watching Enys Men is sort of listening to someone explain a weird dream they had. Sure, there might be some interesting parts. But you’re not really getting the full experience, and you can never be as invested or as influenced by the secondhand retelling as you could by having the dream yourself. 

There’s a few deeper concepts swirling around in Enys Men – ruminations on grief, mostly, and an underlying commentary on environmentalism – but this isn’t a film interested in spelling things out and explaining a meaning to you. In a way, that’s good – you can take what you want from this story. But it also feels like the lack of resolution or definition to the final escalation of events lessens the overall impact. Even in the end, there’s still an ocean of distance between the audience and The Volunteer, when we should have been sharing the same island.

Enys Men premieres in theaters March 31.