By Peg Aloi
The Wind explores the fears that beset even strong, capable women stuck struggling for survival without community or social contact.
The Wind, directed by Emma Tammi. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theatre through April 13.
This stunning IFC Midnight feature debut from screenwriter Theresa Sutherland and director Emma Tammi is bound to draw comparisons to 2015’s The Witch. Not because its story or setting is similar (although centuries apart), nor because there’s a creepy goat and some threatening wolves (there are!), but because it’s an unsettling commentary on some of the terrifying tropes associated with women through the ages. When we travel to new worlds and are challenged to tame a wild landscape, women are inevitably called on to work the land and to populate it. And when things go wrong they are often demonized. Think of the Salem witch trials. Think of the pioneer women of the middle 19th century who were driven mad by isolation and non-stop childbearing (dramatized in The Homesman).
The Wind is genre-defying: it is part period thriller, part Western, part folk horror. Its opening scenes are subtly disturbing: two men stand outside a cabin, waiting in ominous quiet. Eventually a young woman covered in blood steps outside with a silent newborn baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. One man takes the child and walks away; we hear his anguished cry offscreen as we close in on the woman’s face, the one who apparently delivered the child. The silence inside the house and the expression on the woman’s face tells us that the mother is dead. Soon after, the child is laid to rest with a woman’s fresh corpse. We then see more of the recent history that leads up to this devastating situation, in a tone replete with folk horror motifs.
Set during the time of western-moving settlements, the film portrays two young couples, thrown together by the random nature of pioneer life on a vast unpopulated prairie. They suffer through the harrowing ordeals of childbirth and suicide, haunted by a terrifying presence that possesses people made vulnerable by solitude and idle imagining,. The torments are helped along by a suggestive religious tract that describes “Demons of the Prairie.”
Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard) and Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) have been married nearly a decade and are childless. They’re happy to meet young Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee), teaching the inexperienced couple the basics of farming and surviving in the harsh, lonely outpost they’ve chosen to settle in. We learn at the beginning, in that grisly prologue, what befell Emma and her child — the narrative probes what happened, and why. A quiet dread overshadowes Emma’s pregnancy, partly because she’s worried about her isolation (Lizzy is the de facto doctor and midwife) and partly because she imagines evil, unwelcoming spirits reside nearby. Lizzy does her best to allay Emma’s anxiety, but soon enough she starts seeing some frightening things herself, and wonders if Emma was right.
The Wind explores the fears that beset even strong, capable women stuck struggling for survival without a supportive community or social contact. The religious tract offered to them becomes a powerful talisman in a land where there is no church, no preacher, no Sunday service for fellowship. Because they knew there was (at best) only casual religious devotion on the prairie, the purveyors of such tracts probably believed that they were staving off the frightening phantoms of wild nature. These fantasies eventually appear, and the film starts to feel more like a traditional horror film, though it stays grounded in its stark imagery and suspenseful pacing. The cinematography and sound design are first rate. The performances are excellent; Caitlin Gerard in particular conveys the film’s unusual spectrum of quiet authenticity giving way to unrestrained terror. These strengths make The Wind a memorable folk horror western, a subgenre we haven’t seen enough of.
Symbolic tropes from literature and folklore (hands covered in blood, wolves at the door, the healing power of rain, the phallic power of a gun) hint at the archetypal significance that lies beneath the story’s ambiguous demons. Are the hauntings and possessions real, or imagined? If nature is female, then its staunchest allies might be female also. But what of the women who pair up with men, who tend to crops and animals and children while the menfolk slash and burn and colonize? The prairie is indeed haunted but, beyond that, it seems to be hungry for some kind of righteous reckoning, and it is the women who intuit the coming storm right before it hits.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.