Budgetary constraints in a film can be a difficult work-around, but they can also lead to some fantastic innovations. Although I find the deliberately small-budget-for-big-earnings method of a studio like Blumhouse to be a little tedious in its repetition, there’s no denying that this approach can work very well with genre films, and especially with horror. But there’s a difference between a film that simply didn’t cost much to make, and something that takes advantage of its limitations with a minimalistic or restrained approach.
Thankfully, horror/western gem The Wind is a fantastic example of the latter. This is the first major feature-length project for both director Emma Tammi and writer Teresa Sutherland – not that you’d know it from watching the film, which comes across as an accomplished and meticulous piece of work that’s as layered as it is genuinely disturbing.
Caitlin Gerard is Lizzy Macklin who, with her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) is attempting to carve out a life on the often unforgiving and isolated Western frontier in the late 1800s. The only other people for miles around are the Macklins’ new neighbours, Emma and Gideon Harper, played by Julia Goldani Telles and Dylan McTee, respectively. The only other character of note is a reverend played – briefly but brilliantly – by Miles Anderson, bringing the cast to a total of five.
It’s a lean film in many respects, including its 86-minute runtime, but The Wind never feels lacking, and it certainly doesn’t starve its audience, opting for a slow meal rather than a cheap calorie-dump. From the very first shot, bone-chilling and completely devoid of dialogue, we know The Wind is going to take its time. After seeing so many messy, rushed horror films lately (recent Stephen King adaptation Pet Sematary springs immediately to mind), it’s such a pleasure to sit down to one that’s both confident in what it’s trying to say, and how exactly it says it.
The Wind is a film told by women, about women, which not only makes a pleasant change from the usual stories told in this particular combination of setting, period and genre, but also allows the narrative to explore some interesting angles. At the story’s core is the relationship between the pragmatic Lizzy and the more mischievous, mercurial Emma, whose interest in Gothic literature and growing obsession with something she thinks is stalking the desolate plains at night cultivates both the film’s horror element and its thematic bent. It’s a film about paranoia and distrust, perhaps sown by the characters’ isolation, or perhaps something more sinister. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that we never get all the answers we want by the end, but The Wind’s ambiguity really works in its favour, because at times we’re left as confused – and terrified – as the protagonist. Speaking of terror, this film has a couple of genuinely scary scenes that eschew jump-scares for moments that unsettle on a much deeper level. In several instances the source of the terror switches in unexpected ways, the nature of whatever haunts both women evolving as the story progresses.
But whatever monsters may or may not be out there, it’s the human characters in The Wind, and the cast’s incredible, physical performances, that dominate. So much of the mood and tactility of the narrative is laid on their shoulders, Tammi’s direction really focussing in on the character dynamics, often born of insecurities and shortcomings, descending into unspoken conflict or outright hostility. Shots often linger to near breaking point on the characters’ physical or emotional trauma, with little or no dialogue needed to convey the tone of a scene. Lizzy and Isaac’s relationship, for example, has a tangible sense of history and intimacy as played by the superb Gerard and Zukerman, which makes their conflict all the more believable when it bubbles up.
The world built around the characters is impeccable, too, every object and situation inferring history and story. The frontier setting, by turns awe-inspiring in its beauty and terrifying in its naked hostility, is a character in itself, and shot with the same lingering determination as the rest of the film by cinematographer Lyn Moncrief. Both homesteads have a deliberately handmade, lived-in feel that lends itself to the film’s bloody physicality. Ben Lovett’s score accentuates the characters’ spiralling madness with its discordant strings; after his evocative work both here and on 2017’s The Ritual, he’s a composer to get excited about. Special effects are few and far between, but when Tammi does use them, it’s sparingly, lingering in the viewer’s memory with greater impact.
The Wind is a fantastic piece of horror in both its evocation of the weird and the subversive exploration of its two complex and tangible female characters, both caught in the teeth of a world otherwise dominated by men and defined by its harshness.
It’s like the filmmakers are actually using the medium they’re working in to tell their story with tools that are often overlooked or underutilised in favour of an easier approach. In other words, it’s a relief not having to listen to characters explain the story or their motivations to me. I said before that The Wind is a lean film, but it’s also rich with detail, the land and characters’ history lying just beneath the surface, every aspect evoked in a way that only film can. Everything works together here beautifully, and from script to screen there’s a sense of rhythm that’s rare in some of the most experienced filmmakers’ work. I can’t wait to see what Tammi, and everyone else involved in The Wind, does next.