Like its prairie setting, Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead is often a quiet, buggy kind of beautiful, not the kind of thing you might seek out exactly, but the kind that can sneak up on and envelop you when you’re in the middle of it. White’s drama, a historical tête-à-tête about a “New York liberal” portrait artist (Jessica Chastain) who decamps to Dakota territory in the 1880s on a mission to paint Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), unfolds in no hurry against a landscape of golden, scraggly, sun-blasted nowhere. Rather than music, the production emphasizes the buzz of flies and crickets, the chittering of birds, the rustle of wind slipping through the prairie grasses. We witness several jolting acts of violence, but fewer than in most movies, and the leads tend toward soft-spoken discussions, even occasional silences.
The most arresting stretches of Woman Walks Ahead summon up the passage of days out on the plains, which is an accomplishment — though excelling at what you might want from a white noise machine is not the same thing as excelling at what you might want from a narrative feature. The vistas and soundscapes, for a time, quelled my disquiet about the film’s framing of the last days of Sitting Bull and the American government’s efforts to strip away Native American land and lives. In reality, Caroline Weldon journeyed to the Dakotas as an activist member of the National Indian Defense Association, eager to help. In the interest of drama, White’s film makes Weldon something of a naif, a widowed dabbler with the wild hair of an idea to paint the great chieftain — which gives the filmmakers the opportunity to craft a narrative of outraged discovery and growing conviction. She doesn’t just learn of the abuses visited upon the tribes by the government and white settlers; she learns from Sitting Bull himself that resisting can serve as a powerful form of self-actualization. “Live more,” he tells her, as if he’s Robin Williams telling prep school kids to seize the day, as if the fact that she’s crossed the country and defied the local military brass to meet him isn’t already evidence that she’s living.
Why is this movie about her learning to live? The real Weldon was divorced rather than widowed, and she lugged a young son with her. She was determined to make a difference — all more interesting (and less random) than what happens onscreen. Making Weldon a political novice suggests, in a slippery way, that the purest activism happens outside of politics, that she would be somehow less noble if she had planned in advance, with the NIDA, her efforts to feed starving families and to organize tribal leaders against a draconian new treaty.
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Her characterization is muddled, with too many early scenes pitting Weldon’s determination to meet and paint Sitting Bull against the harsh realities of prairie life and American racism. Since she’s apparently naive, the script at odds with Chastain’s typically gutsy performance, her early encounters with Sitting Bull lose some power. Just like him, we’re left to wonder what she really wants, how much she really knows. Chastain’s Weldon meets Sitting Bull more than a decade after he helped defeat Custer at Little Bighorn. The chief is now a potato farmer who charges to have his portrait taken. He wears a suit for his first sitting with her but consents to don his buckskins; he tells her he won’t wear his feathered headdress for the same reason she wouldn’t wear her wedding dress. Later, when she proposes that she guide Sitting Bull through democratic processes that have been crafted to crush him and steal from his people, you might wonder the same thing he does: Why should he bother?
Another question that tugged at my mind: Why doesn’t the story start at this point, with tribal leaders and NIDA activists frankly discussing the issues at hand and strategizing to ensure a people’s survival? Instead, the political wrangling is subordinate to the more familiar story of a white interloper’s process of radicalization. What matters most gets rushed through, slowing only for a fine speech from Greyeyes, the kind that the movies often give to a martyr not long before the death of the cause.
Greyeyes is young for the role, but he’s still stirring as a man of power and vision whose world is being stolen from him. Sam Rockwell barrels through as the baldly villainous Col. Silas Groves, who spits out realpolitik about having good intentions: “West of Missouri, that could be lethal.” Later, he’ll implement a plan to cut the local tribes’ food rations in anticipation of their vote on a new treaty — hunger, he notes, begets tractability.
Woman Walks Ahead is often bold at what we might call revisionism, facing hard truths that Westerns so often denied. And the film’s feminist leanings are as refreshing as its landscape photography. But the good intentions it carries out to the plains don’t make up for the tentative falseness at its center, a hero who could herself benefit from a portraitist's clear vision.