Widowed New York painter Caroline Weldon (Jessica Chastain) travels to South Dakota in 1889 to do a portrait of Sitting Bull (Canadian actor/dancer Michael Greyeyes). It’s the sort true-story premise would be a fascinating starting point for a movie … if said film had more than a nodding acquaintance with the truth. Hollywood airbrushing quickly infects Woman Walks Ahead from the get-go, whether or not you know that Chastain and Greyeyes are at least 15 years younger and eons more glamorous than the characters they’re respectively playing. Thankfully, the two screen version don’t hook up – that would be flagrant violation of fact – but there’s a lot of teasing and flirting, which trivializes the impact even when the film bothers to adhere to historical accuracy. Did you know Sitting Bull had two surviving wives at the time? No problem. The movie doesn’t either.
And yet you watch because the California-bred Chastain and Greyeyes, a Plains Cree from the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, exert an indisputable magnetism that didn’t need the fictional touch-ups. Weldon arrives alone by train to encounter the Native American icon; she’s on her own with no political agenda. In fact, the divorcée showed accompanied by her illegitimate 12-year-old son and blessed with a fierce determination, as a member of the National Indian Defense Association, to help the Lakota Sioux protect their land from federal annexation through the Dawes Act. The movie’s Weldon, however, has no knowledge about the plight of the Sioux when she arrives. She finds a downcast Sitting Bull planting potatoes and offers him $1,000 to paint his portrait. He accepts reluctantly, refusing at first to wear the feathers of a fighter. But the warrior in Weldon inspires Sitting Bull to rise up and lead his people to fight against a genocidal U.S. government, repped by Bill Camp’s Gen. Cook, out to seize their land. Can you imagine? A white savior comes to the rescue by reminding a Sioux leader how to lead.
Good Lord! As stolidly directed by Susanna White (Our Kind of Traitor), from a script by Stephen Knight (Locke) that seems more retro than revisionist, Woman Walks Ahead promotes a feminist agenda by painting over the pesky facts to make the story more palatable to lovers of romance novels. (Presumably, a dull truth is hell on narrative flow.) Compensations can certainly be found in Mike Eley’s striking cinematography, with widescreen vistas shot in North Dakota and New Mexico that take the breath away.
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And the actors do their best to fill in the blanks left by the script. Ciarán Hinds is an immovable force as the military commander who wants nothing to do with this liberal New Yorker he thinks only wants to make trouble. And freshly-minted Oscar winner Sam Rockwell adds mirth and menace to the role of Col. Silas Groves, who knows the danger of this interloper’s good intentions. For her trouble and growing activism, our heroine is vilified as an “Indian lover” and brutally beaten by forces who want her on the next train out.
With the odds stacked against her, Weldon keeps tilting at windmills until
she’s noticed. That she is. As Sitting Bull’s new political confidante, she
advises him to discourage his tribe’s participation in the Ghost Dance, a
ritual that declared war on whites. The
failure to desist led to his murderl, quickly followed by the massacre at Wounded Knee
that ended the Sioux resistance. It’s a bloody story of oppression that gets way too sanitized here with silly distractions to land as an indictment. Chastain
and Greyeyes do there level best to overcome their miscasting. But you
leave Woman Walks Ahead thinking the truth would have made a much better movie.