William Faulkner famously penned, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” While likely thinking of his own understanding of American sin in the rushes of Mississippi, such wisdom also applies to the “old” West. The land of big sky and big country once canvased America’s most beloved fantasies, but as the centuries pass, so does that rosy tint. And in its place, provocative and thoughtful introspections like Woman Walks Ahead can examine, with ever increasing self-awareness, that past which never really came to pass.
With a deft hand and a large reserve of ambition, director Susanna White mounts a very elegiac vision with Woman, one in which she and star Jessica Chastain contribute to the growing subgenre of deconstructionist oaters. Within the familiar form of “Cowboys and Indians,” they acutely assess the role of women in this well-worn cinematic genre, as well as the eternal tragedy of Native American relations in American history. While some have argued Woman Walks Ahead is a white savior movie, the sorrowful awareness of the film is that it knows all too well about its privilege, and the pain such good intentions can still inflict from 1890 to 2018.
If you’re familiar with the story of the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, then the setting of 1890 has a special meaning when the film begins. It is in this context that Chastain plays the real-life artist Catherine Weldon. Although highly fictionalized for the film, Chastain’s character does capture the startling (and eponymous) audacity of Weldon, who despite being born into affluent New York society used the new freedom afforded by her husband’s death to travel to Dakota in an effort to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull, the legendary Lakota Chief and last surviving warrior to lead the defeat of Lt. Col. George Custer almost 15 years earlier. Yet nothing is quite how Catherine imagines it when she steps off the train.
Rather than a lush land of noble and idyllic Natives, Catherine finds herself unwelcomed and uninvited at nearly every turn, including by Col. Silas Grove (Sam Rockwell), who urges Catherine to never exit the locomotive. When she does, she is immediately spat on by white locals who despise word of an eastern agitator who’s come west to “help” Sitting Bull; she is robbed, stranded in the wild, and soon ordered by the local government agent (Ciarán Hinds) to immediately depart on the following morning’s train. And even the American Indians she so romanticizes aren’t exactly receptive. After all, she meets the storied Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) not as the buckskinned and feather adorned warrior, but as a weary and articulate English speaking potato farmer. (He demands compensation before he agrees to have any talk of portraiture.)
And yet, even if Catherine thinks she has come to commemorate an icon of American history, there are those that are far from ready to turn the page, such as the U.S. Cavalry’s Gen. Cook (Bill Camp), a man who welcomes any outside agitation… and the prospect of Sitting Bull rising again, which would provide a handy pretext to a final epilogue of slaughter.
From the outset, Woman Walks Ahead is a wistful affair that is cognizant about the type of mythmaking it is both embracing and challenging. Chastain’s lead is simultaneously a contemporary iconoclast and a modern heroine who, after a year of what she formally calls “grieving,” all too eagerly has replaced her black garb with a colorful fashion while tossing a portrait of her late husband into the Hudson River. As an artist who was required to give up her craft at a young age when she entered an arranged marriage, she is downright gleeful about cutting a literal path across America.
The film also intentionally contrasts this with what I suspect is its stronger fascination: the final days of Sitting Bull. Played with a beleaguered grace by Michael Greyeyes, there is a consuming elegance about the character and the actor’s portrayal, yet also a bitter refusal to romanticize the American Indian as simply a “noble” or pure alternative to the white settlers in the film. Rather Sitting Bull and Catherine form an unlikely friendship due to both being marginalized, which for the most part is slowly earned and beautifully played by both Greyeyes and Chastain. Presumably, White and screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) would’ve been happy to make a film strictly about the late life and death of Sitting Bull, and the consequences that followed. However, the feminist entry-point into the story from Catherine’s perspective is more than just a commercial concession; it’s also a self-conscious opportunity to explore the limits of the “white savior” narrative.
There is a strong feminine underpinning to Catherine’s journey, which was in reality then (and still would now) be considered fairly radical, as she goes from Brooklyn patrician to political activist working on behalf of the Lakota Reservation, which is being “presented” with an unfair land grab deal via the Dawes Act. Even so, her alliance with Sitting Bull is not a thing of pure righteous tact or political shrewdness. There is a thematic consideration of the failure of well-meaning voluntourism, as despite Catherine’s virtuous cause, she is entering a political tempest in a rowboat and with no idea which direction land resides.
For example, Sam Rockwell gives yet another layered performance of an unrepentant racist who nevertheless may not always have the worst goals in mind. Rockwell is a sweaty antagonist, but his inclusion points to a sophistication about depicting the wild frontier on screen—even in a period when it is attempting to no longer be wild—in a way that remains elusive for other Native American “white savior” movies with a privileged perspective, such as Dances with Wolves and last year’s far more binary shoot ‘em up, Hostiles.
The truthfulness about its own blindspots gives Woman Walks Ahead a startling clarity, as well as the ability to paint Greyeyes’ Sitting Bull in more than the traditional cinematic broad strokes. It is also the film’s strong acumen on this count that causes its third act to falter. Chastain provides an expectedly adroit performance as Catherine—shaky 19th century Brooklynite accent notwithstanding—and Greyeyes often steals the movie as Sitting Bull, yet an emphasis on a potential unrequieted romance between the pair rings hollow and hastily tacked on, as does the actual conclusion to the piece, which strains at trying to insert Catherine into the final Sitting Bull myth.
These missteps are unfortunate, as they undermine the film’s otherwise prescient intelligence. But for a Western that attempts to delve into the era’s greatest sin, its ability to see damnation and salvation everywhere, including in those viewing it from the other side of the screen, is a refreshing departure. At one point early in the picture, Rockwell’s Silas condescends that “it’s not history until it’s done.” He might be an arrogant bastard, but like Faulkner, he had it right on that count.
Woman Walks Ahead premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25 and premieres DirecTV Cinema May 31 and in theaters on June 29, 2018.