The gloomy isolation of homemaking females has long been a significant topic across various genres in cinema, depicted in domestic dramas like Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” and in psychodramas like Todd Haynes’ “Safe.” With her debut feature “The Wind,” a psychedelic yet baggy period-horror film, director Emma Tammi assertively carries this female-focused subject matter over to one of the most masculine of genres, the Western, with technical panache yet mixed dramatic results.
A respectable addition to the growing group of female-led Westerns of recent vintage — including “Meek’s Cutoff,” “The Homesman” and “Jane Got a Gun” — Tammi’s supernatural thriller unearths claustrophobic fears amid vast, deserted landscapes and attempts to portray symbolically the multitude of forces, otherworldly and otherwise, that aim to paralyze abandoned women. It’s a compelling package substantiated by dedicated performances and top-notch below-the-line craftwork, yet sadly bogged down by a disorderly narrative structure that works against the story’s psychological continuity.
“The Wind” follows Lizzy (an emotionally stalwart Caitlin Gerard, “Insidious: The Last Key”), a practical and more-than-capable 19th-century frontierswoman living on a remote piece of land with her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman, “Succession”). Stuck in the humdrum of everyday life away from civilization, and equipped only with the bare necessities at her homestead, the gun-toting Lizzy spends her excruciatingly lonely days taking care of the ranch (farming, building and cleaning through what seems like an endless circular rotation), with her husband gone for long stretches of time as expected from the men of the era.
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In the midst of all this monotony, Lizzy also seems haunted by a demonic presence that announces its ominous arrival through swooping winds, the existence of which her husband predictably refuses to believe. So when an ostensibly wholesome couple — the innocently mannered, obedient Emma (Julia Goldani Telles, “The Affair”) and her patronizing husband Gideon (Dylan McTee, “Sweet/Vicious”) — arrive out of nowhere and pitch their own habitat nearby, it initially appears to be good news for Lizzy, a welcome break from her hallucinatory visions of bloody animal corpses and rotting human bodies that might or might not be real. But what if the friendly neighbors are also not what they seem to be?
Written by first-timer Teresa Sutherland, “The Wind” is amply draped by the question of deceptive external appearances on which Tammi attempts to pull back the curtain. Is there more to the holy preacher (Miles Anderson, “La La Land”) carrying God’s word to far-flung locales? (The film’s most frightening and ably pulled-off scene certainly suggests as much.) Is Emma really as godly as she appears to be? And most importantly, is there really something menacing out there?
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Unfortunately for the viewer, the script reveals too much too soon, especially when it starts off with the image of a lifeless body. A superfluous framing device, the opening scene frustratingly sabotages the way we engage with the film’s modest intentions around harnessing a sense of slow-burning tension. Begging for a straightforward chronological assembly, for the most part, Tammi’s splintered film loses track of its feminist thematic build-up amid unnecessary back-and-forth shifts in its timeline; just when we start moving alongside a gripping rhythm, Tammi cuts away from the suspense, prioritizing style over substance and exposing the rough seams of her film.
Unsurprisingly, “The Wind’ is at its strongest when the filmmaker grants the viewer patches of uninterrupted moments with the dueling couples, underscoring their sinister appeal through well-calibrated sequences. A humble dinner party turns deliciously awkward in one scene. In others, clumsy sexual tensions arise as clues around the nature of the evil that torments Lizzy get dropped in.
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Meanwhile, Tammi generously serves up send-offs to certain genre staples as Lizzy’s madness escalates. There are on-the-nose traces of John Ford’s “The Searchers” here (so much that the film’s poster features a doorway shot reminiscent of the iconic one in Ford’s classic) as well as clever dashes of suffocating terrors from “The Shining.” Yet the appeal of Tammi’s film, however limited, isn’t nested in the cinematic references she and Sutherland throw in; it is in how the duo subverts what we have come to expect from the tired cliché of the unhinged, neglected woman no one will believe. In that, “The Wind” encompasses rewarding observations around female rage, revenge, agency and fertility. It mostly falls short on scares, yet it manipulates genre tropes in new, unexpected ways.
As the players in “The Wind” unearth shades of their darkening characters, the biggest praise goes to the film’s team of sound designers for intensifying every creak, hiss and scream throughout, while cinematographer Lyn Moncrief calibrates his lens to the folkloric story’s deliberate chills. “The Wind” might not quite succeed as a frontier-set “The Witch,” but it certainly signals the arrival of a promising talent bound to find her voice in due course.