The woman walks out of the cabin, the wind whipping all around her. Her white dress is bloodied. She’s carrying a baby, which isn’t making a sound; the two men staring at her are equally silent. (We eventually hear a howl of pain coming from offscreen.) Later, we see her standing over a grave … only there isn’t an infant in the coffin, but an adult female. The men finish burying her, then they saddle up the horses and leave for what may be a days-long trip. She’s left standing there, glimpsed through a barn door Searchers-style, completely alone.
Some seven minutes in, director Emma Tammi’s feature debut The Wind has already given you 90-percent of what you need to know about her homesteader horror movie. The landscape these people live on is pitiless, stark, violent, haunting. Men are stoic and strong, but also somewhat useless; they’re often A.W.O.L. as well. Women are isolated to a frightening degree and left to fend for themselves. You’re going to get classic Western iconography, and it’s also going to get fucked with a bit. Don’t expect the chronology of events to be presented in order. And most of all, the vibe is going to be heavy frontier-gothic with liberal doses of feminized psychological dread. If you’re thinking “Repulsion by John Ford,” you’re more on the right track than you could possibly know.
As for the 10-percent that lies in store, Tammi and screenwriter Teresa Sutherland take their time setting things up so that when the last bit of information does drop, audiences are genuinely unsure of where they stand or what exactly to believe. No one would accuse Elizabeth (Caitlin Gerard) of being a reliable narrator, after all — she’s the woman holding the tiny, stillborn bundle in the opening shot. But even when she’s not overcome with grief or gritting her teeth during a trauma, there’s an aura of prairie paranoia that hovers around her. A German immigrant living in the barely tamed American West with her husband Isaac (Ashley Zuckerman), she’s happy when news reaches them that they have neighbors. The couple that’s come to work the land near them, Gideon (Dylan McTee) and Emma (Julia Goldani Telles), seem nice enough, even if he makes snide comments about her cooking and she cuts him down to size about his lack of outdoorsman attributes. Not an ideal marriage, even by 19th-century standards.
Still, “Lizzy” is so happy to have company, in fact, that she only slightly cringes when Emma starts making conspicuously thirsty comments about how handy Isaac is. (Ah yes, the classic giving-a-married-man-cold-water-on-a-hot day move — the oldest settler seduction trick in the book!) Then some funny stuff starts happening. The new wife in town won’t come out from under her living room table. We also get flashes of gutted goats, who later seem to be miraculously unharmed. Hungry wolves come and go, as do pregnancies. Shotguns get wielded with alarming casualness. Little by little, it’s revealed how that female corpse we saw in the beginning ended up six feet under ground. And there may be something supernatural stalking the plains as well.
The Wind is so adept at working this notion of manifest-destiny madness — and so specific in the way it equates the exterior bleakness of the American frontier with an interior sense of repression and fermenting hysteria — that when it starts inching into demon-possession territory, you almost wish it had simply stuck with the human insanity. You do get one beautifully chill-inspiring moment that presents a hellish “transformation” as a shadow play against a cabin wall, but even that pales in comparison to some of cinematographer Lyn Moncrief’s less scare-friendly shots: two women sitting under a barren try with a dark-cloud skyline behind them, or one person following another, rifle in hand, from one side of the screen to the next. Volumes are spoken there, with nary a black-eyed fiend or Satanic growl necessary.
But what Tammi and Sutherland are doing here suggests a grander plan than just a hearty “boo!” on the high plains, one involving hijacking two traditionally masculine genres and bending them to their will. The Wind does indeed blow a hell of a chill through you, though that has less to do with thing that bump in the night than in the psyche. It starts with a doomed birth and ends with a woman left on a cursed land. You wonder what will happen to that heroine after the movie leaves her, even if history has already rendered its verdict on the age. More importantly, it leaves you feeling like you can’t wait to see what the heroes behind the camera have planned next.