The doorway shot in John Ford’s “The Searchers” is one of the most influential cinematic frames of all time. But it’s not often we really parse the meaning of that iconic image, or seek to understand the way it has shaped our understanding of the western as an outdoorsy, masculine genre. Emma Tammi’s feature debut, a clever if low-boil horror-western, provokes such ruminations by being, essentially, a reverse of that shot: Instead of our eye following John Wayne walking off into a bright rectangle of scrubby land framed by the dark silhouette of a cabin doorway, “The Wind” imagines a Wild West where the man walks off into darkness and we stay inside the brightly lit cabin, where the women are.
That’s not to suggest there’s anything cozily domestic about Tammi’s vision of the feminine West. In fact, in “The Wind,” the agoraphobic lonesomeness of the cowboy on the hilltop has nothing on the claustrophobic isolation of his wife, alone in a cabin with just a few guttering candles holding the swamping darkness at bay. You’d have to be a pretty resilient type to survive this kind of existence, but that’s exactly what Lizzie (Caitlin Gerrard) seems to be — a capable, practical German immigrant married to loving but frequently absent husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman); she unstintingly goes about the business of making this treeless, featureless patch of prairie feel like home, despite the emptiness of the horizon in all directions.
Still, she’s glad when Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee) arrive and set up in a cabin not too far away. Their marriage may not be as halcyon as her own — pretty, flirtatious city-girl Emma is openly contemptuous of Gideon’s talents as a homesteader, especially compared with Isaac’s frontiersy aptitude — but the women bond nonetheless, even more so when Emma gets pregnant.
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Yet, this chronological reconstruction of the narrative is not how Tammi and screenwriter Teresa Sutherland tell their nonlinear tale. They deliberately obfuscate and confuse the timeline so that the shocking, gruesomely evoked opening scene can cast its pall over the rest of the film, even if the bloody event it portrays happened later. But then, maybe horror is just tragedy told in a different order, and here the manipulations may be obvious, but that doesn’t make them less effective. From the start, this arid and forbidding plot of land, hauntingly evoked in Lyn Moncrief’s lean, spare Ford-indebted cinematography and Ben Lovett’s airy but portentous score, is, despite Lizzie’s best efforts, explicitly a place of death nested inside other deaths.
“Is there a church nearby?” Emma inquires. “Not enough folk around here yet,” replies Lizzie, which lets us know not only how sparsely populated the area is, but seeds the idea of the region as a Godless place. Absent company, society and even the comforts of organized religion, there’s nothing to stop the incessant wind from blowing dark thoughts into a household, through the whistling cracks in its timber frame. Tammi atmospherically evokes this emptiness, but sometimes at the cost of the film’s pacing, especially amid the tumbleweed of its middle third. The progressively more unkempt Gerard is excellent, cutting a subtly subversive figure as her neatly corseted, plainly dressed Lizzie (Kate De Blasio’s costuming is unshowily appropriate) becomes increasingly attached to her shotgun. But it’s a lot to ask to have her carry the film with little to act against except the demon that stalks the prairie — which may or may not be a phantom of her own imagining. Horror hounds may find themselves getting a little impatient with “The Wind,” especially when Tammi begins on such an unflinchingly nasty note (the effects team deserves credit for delivering a most credible corpse) but then elects to keep the gore to a minimum until the grisly climax.
The film is much more successful, however, as a feminized reworking of the western mythos. Isaac foolishly dismisses Lizzie’s fears as irrational, but though her terrors may not take the exact form she describes, the danger of which she warns him is very real. Meanwhile the weakling Gideon seems to buckle under the weight of his pretty wife’s scorn: The marginalized menfolk of “The Wind” will pay a heavy price for underestimating the will of their wives and for assuming that, as men, they are masters of their destinies.
A convincingly feminist melding of western legend and cabin-in-the-woods horror, but not in the way one might initially think, “The Wind” doesn’t seek to make infallible heroes of its women, but to understand and empathize with even their most unforgivable acts. And it’s a hugely promising debut in terms of Tammi’s steady, assured directorial craft. It’s only the story’s pacing that frustrates, its narrative wielded like a shotgun loaded, cocked and aimed far too long before the trigger is finally, explosively pulled.