Over the past decade, some of our most talented filmmakers have found their voice in the familiar confines of horror films and traditional westerns. So it’s always been a bit puzzling that more independent artists aren’t drawn towards the potential of the horror-western. Given the relevant themes of isolation and American exceptionalism — and a palette of dynamic visuals from which to draw upon — the horror-western should be at least as popular among first-time filmmakers as the zombie film. Don’t believe me? Look no further than Emma Tammi‘s The Wind, an inspired mashup of everything that makes both genres special.
Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard) and her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) live far beyond the boundaries of society, scratching out a meager living working the land in 1800s America. When they are joined by new neighbors — a pair of urban twenty-somethings looking to prove their mettle on the frontier — Lizzy and Isaac are all-too-happy to show them the ropes and look after them as they adjust to the isolation of the plains. But when Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) gets pregnant and begins to worry that the demons of the prairie have designs for her baby, Lizzy’s own mental health begins to unravel. Is she crazy? Or is there really something out there hunting those she loves?
Lizzy is a skilled frontierswoman — as adept with a shotgun as she is with a sewing needle — but even her steadfastness in the face of adversity can be slowly ground to dust in the wake of so many personal tragedies. The result of Emma’s pregnancy is not in question; the film’s opening moments reveal Lizzy as she holds the lifeless body of her neighbor’s child, and we see hints that Emma herself has committed suicide in the wake of her loss. From there, The Wind doubles back and tells its story in two advancing chunks, one the tale of how she and her husband came to stand bloodied on the porch that fateful evening, the other the impact of that death on Lizzy’s state of mind.
This narrative choice works because of the film’s central performance. Given that the film is told in overlapping time-frames and with a single performer at its center, much of the plot rests on the shoulders of its star. Gerard possesses a quiet reserve as a performer; the competing viewpoints mean it is important we view her character as always holding something back, and her face – warm and expressive at times, is the very picture of inscrutability for much of the film. This is also the type of performance that should make casting directors on both sides of the country stand up and take note.
Then there are the aesthetic choices. The Wind seems destined to receive comparisons to Robert Eggers’s The Witch, another film that explores female isolation and abandonment on the American frontier. Both films present a female protagonist who is pushed towards madness by the inattentiveness of those around her; both films also depict the isolation of the American frontier as a place beset upon by demons, both literal and metaphorical. What The Wind adds is a touch of interpersonal drama. Lizzy begins to suspect that her husband Isaac has had an affair with their new neighbor, and we watch in flashbacks as her kindness towards the other woman stagnates and turns bitter.
Like The Witch, religion also plays a major part in Sutherland’s script. Newcomer Emma is a god-fearing woman. Her faces lights up when she describes a chance encounter with a priest on their journey; her first stated frustration with prairie life is the lack of a church. Lizzy, on the other hand, has hardened her heart towards organized religion. The death of her son during childbirth has left her scarred, and the only bible in her household — a leather-bound edition inscribed with her name — is buried along with his body. “He’ll use it more than I will,” she spits at Isaac, the kind of foreboding prophecy one probably shouldn’t make while living on the edge of the world.
Unsurprisingly, Tammi and cinematographer Lyn Moncrief also find tremendous power in the visual language of the western, clearly showing the Macklins’ isolation against the backdrop of the American prairie. One particular shot — repeated several times to great effect throughout the film — shows the Harper homestead lit up at night across the valley, a small flickering dot in a sea of blackness. Many of these shots are recognizable from other westerns, but here the distance between cabins takes on an ominous hue. Manifest Destiny has brought these families far from their families, but the isolation they experience is the price they pay to pursue their lifestyle, not the object itself they are buying.
Ultimately, The Wind is a film about pain. The pain of losing one’s child before you have even given them their name, the pain of watching someone entirely undeserving achieve your life’s goals, and the pain of physical and emotional isolation from the world around you. Hollywood has seen a strong spate of purgatorial horror films emerge from unexpected sources over the past few years; with any luck, The Wind will soon takes its place among them.