The Wind
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Image courtesy of TIFF.

The Wind brings demons to the frontier with mixed results

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Sep 18, 2018, 4:15 PM EDT (Updated)

Emma Tammi makes her feature directorial debut with a film about isolation during the early days of life on the American plains and the paranoia created by suspicion, jealousy, and good old-fashioned demons. It's not hard to see why The Wind, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival during its Midnight Madness section, has garnered so many comparisons to another striking horror debut, The Witch. Both follow the lives of new settlers in an unknown world, both take on the smothering patriarchal system and how desperately those with power try to maintain their crumbling social foundations, and both have unnerving goats. Your enjoyment of The Wind may end up being tied to how much you enjoyed The Witch and the respective expectations that came with each.

The Wind follows Lizzie, a tough-minded pilgrim who is introduced covered in blood and holding a baby. From there on, the audience is given a fractured and questionably reliable glimpse into the events that led her to that point, including her fractured relationship with the new arrivals to the plain. Her new neighbors, Emma and Gideon, are unprepared for the realities of survival, and Emma's need for social interaction is tainted by her obvious feelings for Lizzie's husband, Isaac, as well as her belief in a demon prowling the prairie.

There’s plenty of creative opportunities to be mined from the disheartening reality of women being ignored or dismissed as hysterical when something goes wrong. Indeed, it’s a major part of the horror genre — think of every time you’ve seen a film where the final girl tells everyone not to go back into the house where the serial killer is, or every time the female detective knows the answers but is ignored by her male superiors, to their ultimate regret. The Wind imagines this scenario in a brutally isolated landscape where the supernatural addition ends up almost being superfluous as a result. How scary are demons, really, when your day-to-day life involves being alone on the frontier with nothing but the wolves, a gun, and your mind?

Tammi’s skills in The Wind are best suited to those moments where the story is focused on one setting and one person. The moments of the most nerve-shredding tension are created when Lizzie is left alone, clutching her rifle for dear life, and the eponymous wind swirling around her wooden house in whispered tones. In these scenes, as Lizzie’s mind cracks at the edges, it becomes all too easy to recognize her smothering paranoia, and the film’s savvy switching up of the linear timeline allows those many unanswered questions to be understood. There’s no need for dialogue, no need for music, no need for dizzying camera tricks or technical prowess. The devil is in the simplicity of it all.

Unfortunately, the slow-burn nature of The Wind can work against its favor. The film has moments where it really gets its hands on the themes of the story — gaslighting, religious paranoia, the madness of solitude, silencing of women — but will then drop those threads for seemingly no reason. All that expertly created tension suddenly disappears like smoke in your hands. It often feels like the film is going for a more deliberately ambiguous tone — are the demons real, or is it all in Lizzie and Emma’s minds? — but even ambiguous storytelling requires moments of sureness. The viewer needs something to cling to instead of questions without answers.

While the film does eeriness well, it stumbles into annoying predictable territory when it aims for old-school scares. Where The Witch succeeded in its creation of terror was not only in its complete commitment to its story but its willingness to eschew those reliable storytelling tools that are ten-a-penny in every horror movie. Alas, The Wind cannot help but use surprise loud noises and jump scares as a crutch. The desired effect for these moments is to keep the audience on their toes, but the film was already doing a good enough job in sustaining suspense, so those jump scares prove more annoying than satisfying. It also does a disservice to the film’s cast, particularly its two lead actresses.

Caitlin Gerard, who plays Lizzie, is the undisputed star of this story, a strong-willed woman of common sense who cannot help but wonder if the mysteries of the plain are out to get her. It’s Gerard who carries the film and spends most of the running time alone, sinking into paranoia and anger as her seemingly perfect prairie life falls apart around her. Julia Goldani Telles plays Emma, a well-to-do young woman who resents being torn from city life by her vain husband and his delusions of self-sustainability. Emma is flighty, eager for companionship and easy to be irritated by, even before she starts talking about demons. Goldani Telles manages to strike an appropriate balance between vulnerability and neediness that makes her plight sympathetic as well as Lizzy’s growing exasperation with the younger woman. They’re both so good, especially Gerard, that the film’s timidity in letting them just do their thing feels like such a let-down.

Tammi is a documentary maker who has chosen horror for her fiction debut, something we don’t see a lot of in the careers of directors. It’s clear that she saw something worth telling in The Wind, and there's enough of that here for Tammi to establish herself as a talent to watch. Still, it’s disappointing that, amid the moments of pure creative confidence, there is such hesitation to trust the material and cast. It’s clear that Emma Tammi, if given the opportunities, can go on to make really great horror with a stridently feminist slant. The Wind, while mixed on its own, is a good sign of things to come.

The Wind is produced by Divide/Conquer and Soapbox Films and currently does not have a distributor.

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