Remember when The Witch came out back in 2015? There was all this talk on a micro level about whether filmmaker Robert Eggers’s movie was actually scary or not (my vote, fueled by nightmares: yes!) and on a macro level about whether Eggers, as a man, should be telling a story about female fear and female subjugation. It’s a question with which we increasingly grapple, of “Who is allowed to tell what stories?” (looking at you, white men and Green Book), and if it’s what turned you away from The Witch, here I am to point you toward The Wind instead.
An exceptionally promising debut from filmmaker Emma Tammi and screenwriter Teresa Sutherland (who pens her first full-length script here), The Wind overlaps a bit with The Witch in its broad strokes. A family settles on what seems like a promising, if desolate, patch of land. There are no neighbors around, no one to spend the time with, no one to befriend. Each day is a struggle against nature and a test for human dominance. And soon it seems like the difficulties of survival are something greater than a day-to-day schedule of working the land, of planting crops, or building a home. They become something larger, something more existential, something more along the lines of good and evil.
That’s the general vibe of The Wind, which doesn’t give a lot of narrative specifics regarding place and time but prefers to build a certain kind of atmosphere—first lonely, then gloomy, and finally malevolent. The setting is the unexplored American West, sometime in the 19th century, where Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) and her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) have lived alone for some years. Absolutely no one else is around. Their wood cabin sits in a field that leads into a wide expanse of nothing, and the wind blows every second of every minute of every hour of every day, and it seems like their home is situated right smack in the middle of a tornado. Everything seems calm at first, until it’s suddenly not.
And that “suddenly not” occurs when the Macklins get neighbors: The Harpers, Gideon (Dylan McTee) and Emma (Julia Goldani Telles), who build their own cabin about a mile away. It’s nicer than the Macklins, and it’s full of Emma’s books and other accoutrements from St. Louis, where they’re from, but Emma only has eyes for the Macklins’ home. For the furniture Isaac made, for the fabrics Lizzy has crafted. Her attachment to them both is almost overwhelming: She turns to Lizzy for advice about how to live in this strange land, and she turns to Isaac for every symbol of masculinity she thinks her husband lacks. Lizzy and Isaac used to be by themselves, but now it seems that Emma is always around, always there, always whispering to Lizzy or gazing at Isaac.
What she is whispering to Lizzy, though, is the sort of thing that would enrage Isaac, for Emma is increasingly convinced that where they have chosen to live is not only barren in terms of natural life, but inherently wrong, corrupted, ruined somehow. And what she blames for it is the wind, in which she thinks hears voices, and shadows and dark figures in the night, whom she thinks are demons and devils. It doesn’t help that when Emma arrived, the local reverend handed her pamphlet called “Demons of the Prairie,” which illustrated and described these beings—pitch-black, with long fingers and claws and horns. Emma has been obsessively reading it, convinced that she is being pursued by these creatures—and her fear is like a disease, like poison, spreading out of the Harpers’ home and moving steadily toward the Macklins’.
Tammi starts the film with a horrifying, recognizable image—a woman covered in blood, holding another woman’s baby in her arms—and then moves The Wind alternately backward and forward, to when Lizzy and Isaac first started their homestead to when Emma and Gideon arrived to a tragedy that drives the two families apart and then the increasingly inexplicable occurrences that bring them back together. As the narrative’s anchor, Lizzy is a compelling figure, a woman who is prepared for a life as a trail-blazer—she has a Bible, a medicine bag, and a rifle ready at her side—but whose fundamental uneasiness in her surroundings is compounded when another woman starts feeling the same things. Lizzy doesn’t want to be like Emma—she wants to be stronger, more resourceful—but Isaac’s forceful rejection of Lizzy’s fears and doubts doesn’t do much to stop them.
Gerard is excellent at communicating all of these varying desires and motivations; she has a steely gaze that brings to mind Michelle Williams in Meek’s Cutoff or Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit—women who are surrounded by men and are aware that they are considered lesser than them, even as if they settle the American West together. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief effectively toggles the film between the cozy-then-claustrophobic nature of the couples’ cabins and the wide-open prairie all around them, and Sutherland’s script is effective in how much it leaves unsaid, how it treats time as something that can be cyclical instead of unyieldingly linear. And although the spookiest moments revolve around jump-scares, Tammi steadily, consistently builds dread for the film’s refreshingly brisk 97-minute run time. Even if you’re not thoroughly terrified by the film’s most blatant attempts at horror, its messaging about how men dismiss female fear in their need for female control sticks long after The Wind dies down.
The Wind is in limited release around the U.S. and available on video on demand.
Image sources (in order of posting): IFC Films, IFC Films, IFC Films, IFC Films