Film Review: Woman Walks Ahead

A well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing film that is perhaps afraid of its own subject.
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The alarm signals go off quickly in Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead, a film inspired by the life of Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a little-known 19th-century portraitist who says early on that she wants to paint Indians (“Native Americans” had not yet entered the lexicography) because they are so “free.” Uh-oh.

Indeed, her desire to do a portrait of Sioux Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), an iconic figure and an embodiment of untamed freedom in her eyes, propels her to take a cross-country trip from her upper-crust Brooklyn home to the wilds of North Dakota. She’s a singularly independent-minded widow (women traveling unaccompanied by a husband or male relative were beyond anomalous) encountering an array of bigoted and enraged men whose distain for women and Native Americans are in equal measure; even on the Indian reservation she is viewed with suspicion and distrust.

Sitting Bull refuses to pose for her unless she pays him $1,000, an exorbitant sum in those days. Admittedly, she’s well-heeled, but his demand is taunting, at least in part. Weldon knows precisely where he’s coming from and accepts his terms.

Our protagonists form an uneasy alliance and the tribe appreciates her as well, especially when she becomes its champion. Yes, as presented she’s their savior, a white savior and that’s mined territory, but as a member of a minority class too—whose voice also needs to be heard—Weldon’s gender mitigates her race and economic privilege, thus making it okay for her to be the Sioux’s galvanizing leader. That’s what the creative team is banking on.

Hey, it’s a female-centric film and that’s grand, but unfortunately, it also has a paint-by-numbers script that appeals to a modern liberal sensibility awash in both old-school and PC clichés that are by turns patronizing and sentimentalizing. Weldon is a 40-ish proto-feminist, breaking through the restraints of a patriarchal society (both her late husband and father tried and failed to keep her down); she makes her living as an artist (not a suitable profession for a woman) and choosesSitting Bull as her model (not a suitable subject for a woman). He is quiet, dignified and deeply philosophical about all things, including his own degraded existence as a one-time commander who is now relegated to potato farming. His observations are often life lessons that frankly sound foolish if not implausible.

“Your society values people by how much you have,” he says. “Ours by how much you give away” (sorry, don’t buy it); then there’s this one: “Words get in the way of knowing someone,” (Really?) and my favorite exchange. “The only battle I’ve fought against is insignificance,” Weldon says to him. “So, live more!” he urges. “Yes, I want to live more,” she answers earnestly. It’s groan-worthy, but the cinematic potholes are far deeper than silly lines and dialogue.

Like most biopics, the film straddles a tightrope between fact and fiction, but the liberties screenwriter Steven Knight has taken add nothing. A major misstep is his depiction of Weldon’s political awakening.

Contrary to what his script suggests, Weldon’s social-justice fires were already stoked before she took her trip. She was a member of the National Indian Defense Fund and opposed to the Dawes Act, an 1887 policy that called for divvying up indigenous tribal lands into allotments to be doled out to individual Indians interested in assimilation and willing to live separately from the tribe in return for U.S. citizenship. The remaining property was put on the market to white settlers (gentrification, 19th-century style).

The Sioux way of life was well on its way to nonexistence: Intra-tribal relationships were frayed, their buffalo had been wiped out and the land was dried up and infertile. The U.S. Army rationed out food to the tribe and in an effort to weaken them they cut their food supply in half. By the time Weldon journeyed West to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait—which today hangs in the North Dakota Historical Society—she was well versed in these realities.

But in this film she’s a political naïf who morphs into an organizer/protester as she slowly grows aware of the issues. Further triggering her call to action, the townsfolk view her as an intrusive, detestable carpetbagger. They also deride her for hanging out with Indians, a subhuman race whose men only want to “fuck” her, thus tainting her even further (shades of John Ford’s The Searchers). The final turning point occurs when she is savagely beaten by several incensed residents, her metamorphosis now inevitable. If you’re going to fabricate, do so to improve the original, not make it more predictable and less compelling.

True to cinematic convention, Weldon’s animating presence rouses Sitting Bull from a kind of psychic stupor to remonstrate against the powers-that-be and rally his people. There’s even a Spartacus-like scene with each Indian expressing his solidarity with his fellow tribesmen. A parallel narrative hints at a mutually shared eroticism between Sitting Bull and Weldon.

Another departure from fact: Both principals were substantially older than they are here. Sitting Bull was married and Weldon, a divorced woman and the mother of an illegitimate child, arrived on the reservation with her young son in tow. There’s no evidence that Weldon and Sitting Bull were romantically involved, though the precise nature of their relationship can only be guessed at. But how much fresher, complex and layered a mature friendship based on a political alliance might have been.

The treatment of Native Americans in literature, theatre and on the large and small screen is fraught. In the past, if they were visible at all they spoke a slow-witted Pidgin English, practiced wild religious rituals that bordered on demonic possession, and in relationship to peace-loving white settlers were unprovoked tomahawk-wielding barbarians.

In recent years, directors have tried to correct the racist one-sided view, some films realizing these goals more fully than others (Hostiles comes to mind). Casting Native American actors who speak the original languages is de rigueur and Woman Walks Ahead is no exception. Greyeyes is in fact aCanadian Plains Cree actor and the Indians onscreen converse among themselves in the Lakota language. Still, the supporting tribal characters are benign, personality-free cardboard cutouts. Are the filmmakers afraid that the presence of any kink in a Native American figure will be misconstrued as racism?

The same paralysis informs the way they’ve shaped Sitting Bull, who in actuality was a military strategist and combatant, a shaman with prophetic powers, and a showman, self-consciously playing the stereotypical Indian as part of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show; in short, he was the sideshow, exploited and underwritten by it. This mythic character is absent from the film.

To the degree that no mythology surrounds Weldon, the writer and director perhaps had more leeway in their treatment of her, but regrettably they did not take advantage of the opportunity. She is the familiar rich dowager committed to left-wing politics and for whom painting is an expression of some generalized disaffection and defiance. We never really know what painting means to her, her aesthetic influences or even if she’s any good.

Painters (real, fictionalized or wholly imagined) are not necessarily fascinating, and the process of creating art is less than riveting on screen. A brooding Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy didn’t cut it; nor did José Ferrer’s enraged and thwarted Toulouse Lautrec in Moulin Rouge. Even Ed Harris couldn’t make Jackson Pollock’s action painting all that captivating.

Still, Woman Walks Ahead cries out for elucidation in this area, especially since there are so few female artists represented in film (Frida, Maudie, and Big Eyes notwithstanding). The viewer needs to have an inkling of what Weldon is attempting to do beyond the obvious tropes.

No blame can be leveled at Chastain. She is one of the best screen actors around, revealing new facets of her talent with each role, from the coarse outsider Celia learning to hold her own in The Help to her calculating, self-serving lobbyist in Miss Sloane and now Weldon. Whatever the limitations of the material, she brings to life a resourceful woman who can’t tolerate injustice while never fully shedding her innate refinement and high-bred discernments.

Greyeyes is excellent too, adding depth to Sitting Bull, a man of few words and an artist in his own right (his autobiographical paintings are far more inspired than Weldon’s portraits), resigned to his fate on the one hand and a conflicted and contradictory warrior on the other. Still, I would love to have known something about his show-biz career and how it informed his sense of self, his relationships.

Actors in the smaller roles are a mixed bag. Ciarán Hinds does a nice job as a world-weary U.S. military boss who has little use for Washington, DC and is himself married to an Indian woman; same for Bill Camp, a crude soldier who serves as comic relief even though his views are appalling.

Sam Rockwell is (as always) charismatic, though even he cannot make credible an old-line racist and misogynistic officer who undergoes an unaccounted for 180-degree turn at the end as he anguishes over his past treatment of Indians.

And then there are the production elements: The emotion-laden music telling us how to feel at every turn is way over the top. Mike Eley’s cinematography is exquisite, though once again excess is its frequent calling card, specifically the many shots of wild horses running free. The metaphor is heavy-handed. Nevertheless, the vast plains framed by imposing mountains manage to evoke, paradoxically enough, the claustrophobia created by wide-open spaces.

This is a well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing film that’s perhaps afraid of its own subject.

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