Ghosts take many forms. In film, they often float somewhere between spooky sprite and benevolent being. Mischievous phantom or malevolent demon. A tortured soul or evil entity. The natural mystery innate in the subject matter is an eternal inspiration well to draw from — and draw from it we do. Perfectly embodying the fear of the unknown, filmmakers turn to the enduring sub-genre time and time again to address evergreen topics like loss, heartbreak, tragedy and evil.
But otherworldly apparitions aren’t the only ones capable of haunting the living. For many, memories of physical or emotional trauma, mental illness, heartbreak, and loss haunt more regularly than beings from beyond. But what if one were haunted by both? It’s a terrifying idea that film plays with from time to time. The vague blurring of lines between what is real and what is perceived often holds layers of mysteries, held close and left for viewers to unpack. In recent years, one of the best films to explore this idea is director Emma Tammi’s haunting horror-western, The Wind and its main character, Lizzy Macklin.
“Lizzy’s ongoing struggle with demons both real and imagined results in a uniquely haunting and complex character.”
Released in 2019 after a successful festival run, The Wind offers a unique spin on the popular frontier western film. Historically, this particular genre of film largely focuses around male characters, their adventures, trials and tribulation out in the wild, unexplored western territories of North America. While still utilizing the familiar backdrop, setting and period, Tammi and writer Teresa Sutherland picked up the camera and gave it a whole new focus; women. A tragically under-explored and often overlooked part of history, The Wind looks at life on the frontier for the women left behind as the men rode off into the sunset.
When we first meet Lizzy (played by the incredible Caitlin Gerard), it is clear that she’s been though some pretty heavy stuff. With her disheveled hair and blood-soaked nightgown, she stands in the doorway of her house holding a tiny, swaddled package. Her very recently deceased neighbor Emma‘s baby. Two men look on; her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) and Emma‘s husband Gideon (Dylan McTee). As she hands the bundle off, a tense and silent exchange hangs heavy in the air conveying the tragic nature of the scene. As the men disperse, a far off scream signals confirmation that the child did not survive. Showing no outward sign of distress, Lizzy stands stoic and strong. In that moment, we learn a whole heap of information regarding Lizzy‘s capabilities and her tight control over her emotions.
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Executed as a non-linear narrative, Lizzy‘s story comes to us through her perspective as she replays the events in her head. A fascinating execution of storytelling, the format allows us as the audience to put the pieces together while revealing equal amounts about Lizzy. Revealing only what she wants us to see, when she wants us to see it, there’s a wonderfully vague reliability to her story. We look on as she experiences genuine excitement at the prospect of neighbors after years of isolation on the prairie. We watch as she kindly assists the young and naive Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) plant crops, sew and learn how to cook. We see her suspicions rise and her demeanor shift as Emma reveals her pregnancy and admiration for Isaac‘s capable nature. And we also see her reactionary dismissive response when Emma discloses that she has been seeing things and fears for her unborn child’s safety.
Having adapted to the harsh isolation of the open prairie (for better or worse), Emma‘s presence and arrival into Lizzy‘s life unsettles and awakens long-buried trauma within her. Recalling memories of her own pregnancy, Lizzy is forced to confront the tragedy of losing her son and the dark, nightly visitations from an ill-willed spirit that preceded it while Isaac was away. A deep wound never properly cared for, Lizzy perpetuates a cycle of dismissive behavior, gaslighting Emma and refusing to believe what she’s saying despite her own experiences that corroborate it. Although the stance is a harsh one for her character to take, the carefully executed narrative and the way in which it unfolds conveys a heartbreaking sense of reality and remains rooted in empathy.
“[…] the carefully executed narrative and the way in which it unfolds conveys a heartbreaking sense of reality and remains rooted in empathy.”
Before Emma and Gideon‘s arrival, Lizzy‘s life was one of stark alienation and isolation. Sure, she had Isaac. But as gender roles often dictated at this time, Isaac‘s role would often require him out in the fields, on hunts, or making runs into town that would span long stretches of time. This required absence from home left Lizzy, alone to handle the day to day operations of a homestead and to simultaneously cope with her ever-growing loneliness in utter silence. Strong, smart and capable, Lizzy‘s days were often filled with laundry, animals to tend to, nails to pound, candles to make and more — but distractions only hold for so long. Much like the wind, trauma and despair need only the tiniest of cracks to sneak in and fill a headspace with darkness.
Ever-evolving throughout the film, Lizzy‘s ongoing struggle with demons both real and imagined results in a uniquely haunting and complex character. Nowhere near perfect, Lizzy‘s sliding spectrum of emotion speaks to her rocky road to recovery and willingness to accept and believe her own eyes. Hardened by years of mental and physical strain, more often that not she turns to her trusty shotgun as a solution. After all, Isaac encourages her to simply shoot a demon should she see one. Using the weapon as an emotional crutch, Lizzy finds an odd calming comfort in its presence that allows her to procrastinate properly addressing her issues and her husband’s lack of belief in them. Transcending the film itself, this reliance on an outside force to address unresolved inner issues resonates with a quiet, yet powerful weight. Although obviously not ideal by any means, the utilization of a physical coping mechanism is one that many will understand and find connection with.
Providing no true heroes, no idealized version of character, there’s a profound beauty in The Wind and in Lizzy that hits on multiple levels. Embracing and highlighting the stark terrain though Lyn Moncrief’s stunning cinematography, we get a true sense of place and atmosphere. Through Ben Lovett’s sparse and evocative score, the land itself becomes a character all its own, toying and manipulating Lizzy‘s mind. Crafted and subtle performances from the rest of the cast beautifully shape the culture and emotional tone for Lizzy‘s world. As we watch her navigate the complexity of emotions and demons that surround her, the question of culpability and reality hang heavy but never resolve fully.
A bold and deliberate choice, it’s also an important one. There is no happy ending for Lizzy and her story. Her trauma and pain do not simply go away or get blamed on the cruel, harsh spirit that sweeps the landscape. By allowing her actions to stand on their own merit, Tammi, Sutherland and Gerard create a character perfectly flawed and utterly timeless. Everyone is haunted in one way or another and through Lizzy we are allowed to see the havoc (both internally and externally) that can result from pain when left ignored, dismissed or unaddressed. More than just an important period piece, Lizzy and The Wind shine an eternally relevant light through a horror lens, creating a distinctive and worthy entry in the saturated ghost story genre.
“Everyone is haunted in one way or another and through Lizzy we are allowed to see the havoc (both internally and externally) that can result from pain when left ignored, dismissed or unaddressed.”