At breakfast, George and Kim (Jake Weber and Patricia Clarkson) drink their orange juice out of carved glass goblets. Although they’re on a weekend away from Manhattan, in the snowy wilds of upstate New York, they’ve brought along remnants of the city, including their young son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan from television’s Malcolm in the Middle). And when they head into town, the sharp contrast of George’s gray turtlenecks and Kim’s black leather pumps with the locals’ plaid shirts and hiking boots plainly demonstrates one of Wendigo‘s central themes: the city vs. the country.
The family’s vacation begins badly, when their Volvo hits a stag crossing the road. Three hunters who had been tracking the deer all day show up, led by the interminably temperamental Otis (John Speredakos); tensions flare as Otis blames George for damaging the stag’s antlers, a conflict alluding as well to the urbanites coming in and “acting like they own the place.” The apparent twist is that, unlike the gap-toothed bumpkins, George and Kim are well-meaning and considerate towards their surroundings. She repeatedly refers to the “poor deer,” destined to be slain (if it weren’t for the Volvo, the hunters would’ve shot the stag), and both parents remind their son that “nature” has its own particular cycle. George and Kim’s—and the film’s—simplistic concept of this “nature” proves to be the eventual downfall of Wendigo.
Miles, who is especially sensitive to omens and phantoms, soon learns about the wendigo, an angry and destructive forest spirit (this story comes from a Native American whom only Miles sees). Like “nature,” or, rather, the film’s construct of nature, the wendigo has a slightly confusing but consistent code of conduct: it consumes, but only with just cause. Before and after hearing about this legend, Miles experiences fatalistic visions of hunters, guns, blood, and the wendigo itself. Meanwhile, the conflict between the family and the townspeople escalates, and by the climax, “nature,” embodied by the wendigo, enacts a vengeance of its own.
Written, directed, and edited by Larry Fessenden, Wendigo considers the possible effects of transposing a “natural” justice system onto human conflict. But the actions taken by the wendigo seem much more vengeful than just. Even more confusing, the spirit takes the side of the Manhattanites, who live most of their lives further removed (physically and metaphorically) from the spirit’s ostensible habitat, namely, the wilderness, than their rural counterparts. Wendigo makes it clear that George and Kim—who are so “civilized” compared to the local hunting families, who drink wine instead of beer and eat pasta instead of venison, who never see trees except in Central Park—still know best how to treat their environment, whatever environment that may be. After all, even though city dwellers consume, pollute, and abuse their surroundings, they are not directly killing animals.
But the hunters that Wendigo demonizes aren’t even sport killers; they actually use the parts of the animals they slay. Making them the villains (as opposed to the family that eats vacuum-packed, hormonally-enhanced steak) is closed-minded at best. While I’m neither advocating nor condemning hunting as a pastime, I’m still confused as to why it is worse to kill and eat animals is worse than just to eat them (or wear them, like Kim with her furry hat). In fact, George and Kim’s ignorance of where their steaks, leather, and fur come from is effectively a step back from understanding the “natural cycle” they purport to know so well.
Why, then, does Wendigo suggest that “nature” would favor these characters? The answer seems to be that living in New York has taught George and Kim to appreciate the wilderness. Privilege and “civilization” have brought them closer to a “natural” state (through education rather than experience) than the locals who have lived their entire lives on the edges of the forest. The film’s climax suggests that even the spirit of “nature” itself believes it. In part, this moral hierarchy is a function of the urban family’s bonds, here displayed as less “barbaric” than those of the hunting families. While George sleds and plays games with Miles, Otis and his son clean guns and cut huge bloody slabs of deer meat together. Still, it’s hard not to be annoyed at George: at least Otis doesn’t affect “Indian” accents for amusement (evidently George’s politically correct sensibilities don’t include respecting cultures other than his own), or refer to his wife as “naive.”
Even the pacing of Wendigo is off. Most of it feels like unnecessary filler, as scenes of the happy family spending quality time together hardly contribute to any sort of spookiness. Fessenden’s delicate time-lapse photography and quick, stop-motion animation-like cuts between scenes are both eerie and well-conceived, but never really fit with the rest of the film, which is shot like a naturalistic melodrama. Patent indie film graininess and clever editing can’t make a stuffed deer into a terrifying embodiment of nature, or the combination of a bad screenplay and overacting into a quality film.
If Wendigo was supposed to be a rumination on the conflict between the civilized and the wild, it surely could have been more complex than this clash between enlightened urbanites and backwoods hicks. According to Wendigo, “nature” loves the members of the upper class almost as much as they love themselves.