Judging from contemporary events, one would think that the Jessica Chastain-led Woman Walks Ahead would not only have been perfect Oscar bait, but a champion of race, feminism, and friendship that would have satisfied both critics and audiences. However, director Susanna White takes the liberty of stretching the truth in order to form her own story that only leads to a weakened and less interesting premise.
The film is based on the true story of widowed New York artist Catherine Weldon (Chastain), who travels to South Dakota to paint a portrait of legendary Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). Her presence and blooming friendship with the Indian Chief does not sit well with Colonel Silas Grove (Sam Rockwell), who has stationed troops near the Standing Rock Reservation in an attempt to take the land. As Catherine grows closer to Sitting Bull, she feels the increasing responsibility of helping preserve and protect the reservation against government forces.
What is such a shame about the film is that though it is technically based on true events, the story that is told is largely fictionalized. The characters in the film are depicted as both quite young and flirtatious, when in real life this was not the case. White and screenwriter Steven Knight treat the film as more of a romance than a factual depiction of Weldon’s aid to the Native Americans (though the two characters never get romantically involved). Building a relationship between the characters is fine- in fact, it’s important. But the amount of time devoted to scenes of Weldon painting Sitting Bull far exceeds the amount of time spent checking off the events of the actual story.
When the true events are focused on, Woman Walks Ahead still tends to fall a bit flat. What presents itself as a romantic film in one moment gets overtly political the next. These themes are by no means meant to be subtle, but depictions of racism and misogyny are so strikingly obvious that their intentions are lost.
These negativities are quite a shame because every other aspect of the film is impressive. The performances are fantastic, showcasing some magical chemistry between Chastain and Greyeyes (which would have really stuck if this was strictly a romantic film). However, the standout performance of Woman Walks Ahead comes from recent Oscar-winner Rockwell, who brings a nice balance of comedic relief and menace to his character.
The film’s high point might very well be its beautiful cinematography by Mike Eely. Depicting a more optimistic version of the American Southwest than one would expect, Eely truly shines through his camerawork, making the rocky pacing a bit easier to sit through.
Woman Walks Ahead is an imperfect film, but not necessarily meritless. A couple changes to the script and the film might have even been a contender for one of the best of the year. However, Woman Walks Ahead fell into the wrong hands and the result is a film that is better off missed.