Most contemporary Westerns have a gothic, dour, sombre tone – depicting the frontier not as virgin wilderness or a playground for cowboys and Indians, but a haunted landscape, where intruding settlers are driven mad or brought down by startling flashes of bloody violence. Emma Tammi’s The Wind – a very female gothic, scripted by Teresa Sutherland, with pretty much an all-woman crew – bears a certain kinship with Robert Eggers’ The Witch, albeit set centuries later and farther to the West. Again, a woman left to her own devices is assailed by demons who might come from her own soul – or be a manifestation of the alien land all around her.
The striking first scene has two men waiting outside a cabin and a bloodied woman emerging, carrying a dead baby. Then, the mother – half her head shot away – is buried in the hard ground, and the midwife is left to scrub down a bloody birthing table and herself while her husband takes the grieving neighbour away – home to Illinois. Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard) is left alone in the cabin she shares with her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman), and seems assailed by the manifestations of evil – wolves, spindle-handed shadows – it is implied have driven Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) to suicide. Lizzy remembers Emma’s story out of order, and our understanding of which of the characters is best suited to this hostile territory shifts. At first, Lizzy and Isaac are encouraged that Gideon (Dylan McTee) and Emma have moved nearby, sensing perhaps the possibility of an expanding community. Lizzy tells Emma there aren’t enough people here for a church, though a perhaps-too-jovial travelling reverend (Miles Anderson) occasionally shows up. There aren’t even any Native Americans in this grassy New Mexico prairie – perhaps because, as a pamphlet hidden in the Bible suggests, the country is stalked by literal demons.
As the jigsaw backstory pieces together, Lizzy starts to lose her grip on the present – there are a few conventional spook movie scares, but this is mostly about slight noises, the endless wind (evoking the wendigo?), shadows, and Gerard’s very expressive face. The title evokes Victor Sjostrom’s 1928 film, in which Lillian Gish was a frontier wife driven mad by the wind and a persistently unburiable corpse – another gothic western written by women (Frances Marion, from a novel by Dorothy Scarborough) – and there are moments when Tammi frames images that evoke a wide range of traditional Western filmmakers, from Ford through Peckinpah to Monte Hellman. But this is, in the end, a subtle horror movie about a fracturing female psyche – Repulsion on the range? – steeped in blood and religion and loneliness and soul-destroying domestic toil.