Breathtaking cinematography and fine acting cannot save Woman Walks Ahead from a silly, underdeveloped script. It turns what could have been a great film into an average one.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed by : Susanna White
Written by: Steven Knight.
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, Sam Rockwell, Ciarán Hinds, Chaske Spencer, and Kindall Charters
When Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain)’s husband dies, she decides to revive the passion for painting that married life denied her. After chucking her husband’s portrait in a river, she boards a train to North Dakota to paint the legendary Sioux chief, Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). When the long hours spent with Sitting Bull lead to empathy with the Lakota’s reluctance to vote away 50% of their land under the Dawes Act, Catherine decides to campaign against the act, with tragic consequences.
Jessica Chastain as a Reanimated Straw Doll
The convention-defying artistic woman is such a staple of the period drama that it has regrettably become a cliché. Catherine is a stereotype who seems to have time-traveled from 2018 with copies of Women Who Run with the Wolves and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in her backpack. It is difficult to gauge any of her motivations that are not entirely abstract. This problem could easily have been remedied by making the character more like the real thing. The original Catherine Weldon was extraordinary even by today’s standards. She faced every problem that extramarital affairs, children out of wedlock and campaigning for Indian Rights could cause a nineteenth-century woman. The filmmakers, however, decided to not trust their audience and turned a real person into a straw doll.
Fortunately, Chastain’s performance is so strong that one barely notices this. She portrays Catherine as radiant with inner strength, grit, pathos and vulnerability, all with great emotional maturity. Chastain is also pleasingly skillful at portraying Catherine’s excruciating awkwardness within the Lakota society she is trying to understand. She commits gaff after gaff and her acceptance by the Lakota is not a walk in the park. The determination to not turn Catherine into Lawrence of Arabia doesn’t quite save Woman Walks Ahead from ‘White Saviour Complex’ accusations, though. Sitting Bull, for example, only campaigns against the Dawes Act at Catherine’s irreverent instigation. It’s a thoughtless oversight, and worse it adds nothing to the plot.
Michael Greyeyes’ Exquisite Performance and Superfluous Shirt
Michael Greyeyes’ subtle and charismatic portrayal of Sitting Bull is one of the great joys of this film. Effortlessly mercurial, Greyeyes succeeds in conveying volcanic despair and fear, as well as light-heartedness and a sense of irony. His performance reaches its summit in the exquisite speech in which Sitting Bull argues, through an interpreter, against the Dawes Act. The speech is powerful, but beautifully understated. It’s emotive, but strikingly lacking in the aggressive masculinity that would have turned Greyeyes’ Sitting Bull from a human being to a noble savage. The only problem I had with Greyeyes’ performance (which actually has nothing to do with Greyeyes himself) is that by the film’s end, I was getting seriously tired of seeing Sitting Bull constantly skinning off his shirt. Seriously, can’t Hollywood find something else for Native American actors to do?
The dynamic between Chastain and Greyeyes is both elemental and pleasingly companionable. Indeed, it has the distinction of both being a cliché and destroying a cliché all at the same time. In the face of the attention that Chastain and Greyeyes’ chemistry brings to the scenes they share, the film’s supporting actors fade away and leave little impression. Sam Rockwell rides around being Sam Rockwell, Ciarán Hinds is utterly wasted, and Chaske Spencer and Kindall Charters move in and out of sight and mind, not doing much of anything to hold our attention.
The Scenery is Sublime
Woman Walks Ahead is worth seeing for the cinematography alone. The vast and lonely prairies coupled with the rosy-fingered dawns and silhouetted sunsets make North Dakota seem like a land worth dying for. Beautiful as it is, the scenery only just compensates the viewer for the infinitely silly script and makes one wonder if the filmmakers intended it that way.
The script is Woman Walks Ahead‘s greatest failing, and owes much to the skill of the film’s actors to prevent its awfulness from being too noticeable:
Catherine: The only battle I ever fought against was insignificance.
Sitting Bull: So live more.
Gross. It never gets any better than that. There’s a lot of “Feeling Free” out on prairies, “You Know Who I Am”-ing and “This is the Most Beautiful [insert random thing here] That I Have Ever Seen”-ing. Writer Steven Knight gives the impression of never having had an original thought in his life. Yet, in the script’s defense it does have some good moments. The haunting description of the Ghost Dance displays a Peter Jacksonesque talent for making idiot-proof art. Also, Sitting Bull’s wry refusal to wear his feathers, “For the same reason you would not wear your wedding dress.” is so intelligent that even the Khloe Kardashians of the world must be capable of understanding it. Perhaps dumbing down has perks, after all.
Woman Walks Ahead is beautifully made and features some excellent acting performances, but the filmmakers’ obvious desire to use these strengths to disguise the disappointing script is sometimes rather obvious.
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“Noble savage” Seriously? Shame on you!
I believe the author was talking about a trope within these types of movies. I don’t think they meant it the way you are taking the term. Movies about the Native Peoples of North America really need to do better overall in the way they are represented. There usually are only two or three ways they are shown on film — and you are correct that we should shame Hollywood for these tropes more often.
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