The crowd is eager as I sit down for an advanced screening of The Wind at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. The film begins, and the excited anticipation of the audience quickly grows to stark terror as we are pulled into a speechless first ten minutes full of pain, dread, and the relentless howling of prairie winds…
…It goes without saying that documentary director Emma Tammi has, er, thrown common genre tropes to the wind and embraced something truly unique with her first venture into narrative storytelling, The Wind. Written by Teresa Sutherland, The Wind is a psychological western horror film set on the frontier in the late 1800s. Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard) and her husband, Isaac (Ashley Zukerman), live in isolation, which is suddenly interrupted by a couple that moves in nearby, Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee). Weary of the new neighbors, Lizzy finds herself consumed not just by paranoia, but by the festering fear that something evil haunts their land, and is driving her to madness.
Western horror is a sub-genre that we don’t see much of, but is one that works extremely well, because it takes characters and throws them into the harshest environment known to man, and then says fuck you, now deal with something evil. Films like Bone Tomahawk, Vampires, and Tremors, have all found success with the lonely setting, but Tammi’s film is the first to my knowledge to fully indulge in what it is that makes the isolated west so terrifying, especially for women at the time.
The Wind is a maelstrom of paranoia, one which is sold off the back of Gerard’s brilliant portrayal of Lizzy. We never doubt for a second that Lizzy is more capable than her male counterparts, often taking the lead when faced with dire situations, yet she is also clearly the most disturbed of the bunch. It’s a complicated, tragic performance, one that Telles refers to as “messy”, but shows that women are “human beings”, and that a well-written female character isn’t just “strong”, but has layers like anyone else. In Tammi’s debut film, which is like Little House on the Prairie meets The Entity, but thankfully without the sexual abuse, Lizzy is relentlessly confronted by both physical demons, and the demons of her past. She is a woman forced to confront her fears day after day, all because Isaac, a man, doesn’t believe her, and in this time period, women like Lizzy are often held prisoner by the desires of men. Thank god times have changed.
This sort of entrapment is highlighted again and again in the film, as both Lizzy and Emma complain of “something” which is out to get them, while both husbands treat them as if they’re crazy. The film makes the smart choice to stick with Lizzy like glue, so that we are forced to experience every paranoid fear with her. Nothing is as it seems in The Wind. The demons which Lizzy faces take many forms, whether it be the appearance of other characters, ravenous animals, or even emotional jealousy. Lizzy cannot trust anyone, including her own eyes, which allows the audience to sympathize with her terror, because we are left feeling just as confused and disoriented as she is.
The Wind is an attack on the senses, which is not often something you can say for as slow burning of a film as this. And make no mistake, Tammi’s film moves at a crawl, but it’s as if we’re crawling through a war trench, waiting to get blown to bits by an unseen assailant. The sound design in this film is truly special. The Wind at times goes for long stretches without a single piece of dialogue, transforming the skin-prickling sound of the wind into a language of its own. Tammi herself even says “there’s so many different types of wind, I had no idea”, when discussing the careful hours spent manipulating the sounds of the prairie into something truly haunting. The wind and other sounds of the film are characters of their own. Accompanied by composer Ben Lovett’s unsettling score, The Wind burrows its way under your skin a sliver at a time.
The madness seeping through the screen and into our eyeballs is potent, working both effectively and at the detriment of The Wind. If there’s any one flaw in the film, it’s the way in which the story is told, which hops all around the timeline of Lizzy’s time on the prairie, from her days with just her and Isaac, to the arrival of their neighbors, to a time after. Despite Alexandra Amick’s exceptional editing, the style of The Wind is extremely disorienting, and more often than not, leaves the audience playing catch-up in trying to figure out where we’re at in the story. In fact, the script is so chaotic in that sense, that Gerard even claims she had to make up a dance, with moves relating to each scene, just to be able to remember where she was at in the story at all times. However, you can also look at it as effectively putting us in the same fractured mindset as Lizzy, so this particular flaw is really in the eye of the beholder and your appreciation of maddening storytelling.
There’s also a slight thematic issue with the script. See, The Wind takes on the daunting task of toying with not just one demon, but fifteen! Lizzy and Emma each have a little pamphlet entitled “Demons of the Prairie”, which describes demons such as Balhan, invader of the weak mind. Jezebeth, demon of falsehood. And Succorbenoth, bringer of jealous thoughts. Each of these demons plays a role in the story, some more subtle than others. The Wind is a restrained film, violent and shocking at times, but taking the less is more approach with the demons. We never actually see these creatures as anything more than mere shadows. Instead, they infest emotions and actions, leaving some of their interactions up to the interpretation of the audience. Which would be great, if the film weren’t juggling so many different themes, that we didn’t quite know where to look. In any other film, Lizzy’s jealousy over the way Emma acts with Isaac might be the main focus, but here, it’s just one of many plagues tormenting Lizzy.
Tammi’s film is not an easy one to keep up with. Watching this film is like spinning on the teacups at Disneyland for over an hour. It’s a good bet you’ll stumble here or there along the way, or maybe even yack up your overpriced nachos. But The Wind is ultimately a devastating portrayal of the isolation women can feel in their own homes, especially during those times, and one that doesn’t punch the audience often, but when it does, hits hard. This is well-crafted psychological horror that shouldn’t be missed.
The Wind releases on VOD from IFC Midnight on April 5th.
By Matt Konopka