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THE WIND is a Striking Feminist Horror Western (TIFF Review)

The atmospheric and moody period Western horror film The Wind, the narrative feature debut from director Emma Tammi, shares a distinct kinship with Robert Eggers’ 2015 horror hit The Witch. The two films take place in remote and rugged locations, where families of pilgrims and pioneers have set out to build a new life on a hardscrabble landscape while struggling to maintain their social structures. Those patriarchal systems aren’t able to process the supernatural and mystical events that overtake the female characters of these films, and what these women feel is rarely believed.

Written by Teresa Sutherland, The Wind is a horror film that finds its villain in the wind that comes howling down the open prairie at night, broken by no mountains, no trees, and no other homes. That isolation can trouble the mind. Lizzie (Caitlin Gerard) is a strong and capable German pioneer, but we watch her deterioration as she becomes increasingly convinced that there’s something evil in the wind that comes at night, demonically possessing whomever comes knocking after dark.

As she rattles around, alone in her home, clutching her trusty rifle, memories of the bloody and tragic destiny of her neighbors Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee) plague her mind. They relied on Lizzie and her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) for survival—crops, health care, social interaction. While Lizzie was happy for the company, Emma grew increasingly needy, especially when she became pregnant and started speaking more about the “Demons of the prairie,” illustrated and described in a small religious pamphlet.

Throughout a one-setting and one-woman show, Tammi effectively builds tension and a sense of creeping dread. It’s a slow burn: often silent, with very little dialogue, Lizzie’s story is primarily visual. But the non-linear plot can be overly convoluted. Flashbacks allow for tiny bits of information to be parceled out, but there’s not much reason for that, and it often takes the legs out from the story’s momentum. Even though the film opens with a killer sequence, bloody and mysterious, you eventually begin to wonder if there’s just not enough story there. 

Those tiny bits of information raise some interesting questions that are never fully wrapped up. One of the major themes of the film is the idea that men don’t believe women when they say they feel or believe in something invisible, unknowable, or outside the natural order. The film plays with the same idea that Rosemary’s Baby does: a pregnant woman feels a force of evil, but her husband refuses to believe her because he can’t see it, and therefore no proof.

The Wind raises those questions but never fully plumbs their depths or answers them. There’s something to be said for ambiguity in an atmospheric horror film like this—is it real or in her head? We’ll never know, but in The Wind it feels like indecision more than anything else, and that refusal to take a stand on the ideas it plays with undercuts its effectiveness.

Gerard is fantastic as Lizzie, essentially carrying the film on her shoulders, required to go from bright and optimistic homesteader to bitter, paranoid and suicidal, convinced she’s being stalked by a demon that comes at night. Goldani Telles, who starred in the recent Slenderman, is also quite good as the vulnerable and exasperating Emma. Both women eclipse their male counterparts, who are serviceable at best.

The Wind should prove to be a breakout for documentary filmmaker Tammi—women directors don’t always tackle genre for their first narrative feature. While some of the story elements are missing or thin, Tammi demonstrates a real knack for visual storytelling and mood; balancing tone and pace while pulling off some very creepy moments; and drawing out an understated but powerful performance from Gerard. The Wind might not blow you away, but it’s a fine piece of ethereal, feminist horror filmmaking that signals talents to watch in its director and star.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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