Jessica Chastain stars as a widow painter who travels west to paint Sitting Bull
Historical drama Woman Walks Ahead is a fictionalized retelling of 19th century activist Catherine Weldon’s work with the Sioux. In the film, Jessica Chastain plays Weldon as a wealthy childless widow with an East Coast accent who takes a train west to paint Sitting Bull. The real Weldon, a Swiss immigrant, was already an activist for Native American rights when she headed to the Standing Rock reservation with her young son in tow.
The screenplay from British writer Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) includes Chastain’s character asserting to a gruff governmental emissary (Sam Rockwell) that she’s no spy and only wants to paint Sitting Bull. This shortchanges the real-life figure she’s playing, initially defining her by a talent instead of her activist bent. This cinematic version of Weldon thrusts herself into action only after time spent among the tribe.
Woman Walks Ahead paints a picture of the close friendship that grows between Weldon and Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). The two talk of freedom and tradition as they rally against the governmental treaty which will harm the tribes even more than their current restricted situation.
The film hints that the gender and societal strictures placed upon them offer the two common ground, which is a tad simplistic. Weldon uses her wealth and privilege to fight for native rights, but this doesn’t put her on equal standing with the tribe. She can always go home, but their home is being stolen.
Mike Eley’s cinematography captures the colorfully stark landscapes and lets the viewer into a bit of the painter’s solitude. New Mexico stands in for North Dakota — it works, somehow. Unusual for a woman in a period piece, Chastain’s character has visible sweat stains in the hot months. I appreciated that touch of authenticity in a film that isn’t overly concerned otherwise about extreme accuracy.
Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead is more concerned with giving voice to figures long forgotten or neglected by history. The director consulted native advisers and historians about the Ghost Dance movement, which Sitting Bull views as a possible solution. The chief is torn between the agrarian lifestyle the American government encourages for the tribe and the traditional tribal way of life that is slowly vanishing. Greyeyes portrays the conflict felt by the Lakota leader, his weariness and diminishing hope.
The cast is packed with indigenous talent; particular standouts are Chaske Spencer (Banshee) as a native working with the military post, and Rulan Tangen (The New World) as a military man’s wife, caught between the two worlds. The storytelling may be clunky, but the film is a move forward for representation, especially in the western genre.
Special features on the new Blu-ray from Lionsgate include:
- Director’s commentary track
- Making-of featurette with director Susanna White
- Deleted scenes