In recent years, Jessica Chastain has used her growing influence in Hollywood to play defiant women who scoff at the buttoned down men only interested in maintaining an unjust status quo. One of the most recent defiant women that Chastain has played was Caroline Weldon in director Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead. For those unaware, Weldon was a painter who travelled to the heart of Dakota country as tensions between the native tribe and the American government were escalating. It’s a well-intentioned but incredibly dry historical drama that fails to captivate.
Caroline Weldon (Chastain) travels from her Brooklyn home to Dakota with the intent to paint the legendary Native American leader Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). Before she can approach her prospective subject, she encounters Colonel Silas Grove (Sam Rockwell), an American officer working to get the Native Americans to agree to an unjust treaty. When Weldon finally comes face to face with Sitting Bull, she’s met with a reluctant subject uninterested in letting a white woman paint him. Eventually, the standoff between the two dissolves and the harsh realities of the American government’s genocidal approach to Native Americans causes Weldon to become an ally in Sitting Bull’s ongoing struggle for fair and equitable treatment. Being in such close proximity to Sitting Bull and the other Native Americans makes Weldon an outcast, leading to moments of violence against her. Her resolve is strong and she continues to stand beside Sitting Bull in his struggle against the cruelty of Manifest Destiny.
One thing that director Susanna White and screenwriter Steven Knight pull off extremely well is not making Caroline Weldon a white savior in a noble savage story. Because in the story of Sitting Bull and all of the Native American tribes in American history, there are no white saviors, only white devils. Instead, Woman Walks Ahead becomes a story about understanding the horrors that one’s government can pull off through massive indifference and the turning of a blind eye. As the film progresses, the perspective of the story shifts from Weldon to Sitting Bull as the Lakota people struggle to make headway in their ongoing negotiations with the Americans led by James McLaughlin (Ciarán Hinds). Of course, this all has a tragic ending as McLaughlin orders the arrest of Sitting Bull which results in the Native American leader being shot and killed.
Good intentions and the great cinematography by Mike Eley can’t save Woman Walks Ahead from its biggest problem – it just has no forward momentum. The film is interested in a meditation on what it means to be an ally, something that is actually crucial at this point, but fails to do so without slipping into a lethargically paced drama. There’s a constant threat hanging over the heads of the main characters but the film is incredibly disinterested in raising the stakes to amplify the tension. It’s a choice that the filmmakers deliberately made to eschew convention but it makes for a movie that’s hard to get wrapped up in as it quietly progresses along.
Woman Walks Ahead is a movie made of good intentions that miss. It’s a would-be prestige picture that aims for something higher and misses, and that just sometimes happens. It does boast some good performances from the always reliable Chastain and a powerful turn as Sitting Bull by Michael Greyeyes. In the end, Woman Walks Ahead is a lot like its protagonist, brimming with noble intent but helpless to do anything to save anyone from the imminent slaughter.
Woman Walks Ahead
Though beautifully shot and well-acted, Woman Walks Ahead lacks much in narrative momentum leaving the film as a quiet meditation on being an ally but one that buried by its lethargic pacing.