In an era as chaotic as our current one, part of the pleasure of watching history unfold onscreen is just knowing what you’re in for. Isn’t it comforting to be sure that at least some of those crazy kids will make it home from Dunkirk, or that the queen’s faltering marriage will definitely live to see another season on The Crown?
But the flip side, of course, are the unhappy endings you can’t rewrite or forget — and anyone who sat through seventh-grade social studies remembers the fate of Sitting Bull and the Battle at Wounded Knee. Woman Walks Ahead at least comes at the story from a relatively fresh angle, via real-life activist and artist Caroline Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a wealthy young widow determined to make her way from circa-1890 New York to North Dakota to paint the legendary Lakota warrior.
Despite her social connections to millionaires and senators, Weldon is hardly welcomed with open arms; in fact, she’s spit on, called a prostitute, and worse. A gruff colonel named Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell) clocks her as trouble before she even disembarks the train, and the great holy man himself (Michael Greyeyes) can’t help side-eyeing her clumsy overtures, at least at first. (It doesn’t help that Chastain, always such a lovely and expressive actress, has chosen to speak in an oddly strangled cadence straight out of the Ministry of Silly Accents.)
But her Weldon is determined, and undeniably brave. And BAFTA-winning director Susanna White (Generation Kill, Parade’s End) captures the stark racial and sexual power dynamics of the 19th-century West with a deftness that the script, by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) sometimes struggles to match.
Both probably share some responsibility for the white savior/noble savage tropes that creep in — especially as Weldon begins to insert herself into the fight between the Native population and the men conscripted by the U.S. government to take their land away and effectively eliminate their way of life.
The relationship between the painter and her subject also veers dangerously close to paperback-romance territory, though the inherent grace of the two actors playing them, and Rockwell’s acerbic turn, help cut the creep of sepia-toned sentiment. (So does the striking wide-open scenery, by cinematographer Mike Eley.)
Woman could use some of the quieter character nuance of a movie like last year’s Wind River, another fact-based drama that reflected the struggle of indigenous people with a sensitive, unvarnished kind of naturalism; White’s well-meant version is undoubtedly incomplete, and gilded with a certain amount of Hollywood silliness. But if it doesn’t exactly feel revelatory or deeply explored as a historical document, it’s still an intriguing story, capably told. B