Directed by Susanna White
Woman Walks Ahead has good intentions, but it tries to push upon us a story we’ve seen before. The specifics of Catherine Weldon’s (Jessica Chastain) journey out west to paint a portrait of a Native American Chief (Michael Greyeyes) might be unique, but the movie boils it all down into the story of another ‘white savior.’ Weldon arrives with a particular goal in mind, finds the people there oppressed and then makes it her mission to help them take back the land from the military forces holding them down. In doing so the movie shows the parallels between the mistreatment of Native Americans and of women at this time, but it is very heavy-handed, romantic and unearned.
Characters behave in ways expected of a conventional plot structure, but those changes show up without the accompanying character growth. In one moment Weldon looks alarmed, and in the very next shot she is dancing in the rain like in The Shawshank Redemption. Because we never see that change in her, even just a subtle smile before the new shot, the moment feels absurd.
There are many moments like that. Characters approach each other with hesitation or suspicion, and then they’re having a friendly chat. This uneven camaraderie mostly deals with Weldon and the Native American Chief Sitting Bull (Greyeyes). He is cold towards her, seemingly on principal, but when she meets his price demands to paint him, he becomes the friendliest guy in the world.
Soon they develop a friendship that townsfolk whisper about, believing it to be romantic (the movie teases this), and later Sitting Bull’s nephew (who took the initiative to introduce the two of them) chastises his uncle for abandoning their cause. I wanted to grab the nephew by the shoulders and say “but mother*cker you started this.”
Characters just don’t seem consistent from moment to moment and certainly scene to scene. They behave the way the story demands. If one scene is meant to be ‘fun,’ then the characters are having fun. Then when things get serious they get very grave. In this way the plot mechanisms and conventions dictate character behavior, not the other way around. When we finally get to the movie’s climax it never feels like it’s because characters and antagonists have no choice but to come head to head. Instead this moment is there only because the runtime demands it.
There is a good cast of actors here, including Chastain, Sam Rockwell, Bill Camp and Ciarán Hinds. They do their best with the material, but the script is formulaic, the dialogue uneven, and what should be compelling character moments suddenly fall flat because we didn’t experience the intended journey to get to such a moment.
So to backtrack, this is a story of Weldon traveling out west following the death of a husband she never wanted to marry. As a woman she is expected to stay where she is, probably to remarry and certainly not to pursue any kind of artistic passion. She says f*ck it, takes the train out west and is immediately accosted by a soldier, Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell, playing a version of the same character from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). He will continue to hound her throughout the film, but eventually his antagonism just kind of burns out in an unexpected, unearned way. He’s a problem until the story says he’s not.
Weldon wishes only to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull. He and the people who look up to him are impoverished and oppressed. There has been a drought and rations are dwindling. This becomes clear to Weldon who decides to help inspire them to push back against their white oppressors. See they never would’ve done it without her intervention.
I’m not sure what the true story is here and how much this abides by or undermines it. I’m sure Weldon had something to do with this, but I doubt she was the sole reason, the sole muse for Sitting Bull and the people he in turn inspired.
Weldon faces a whole lot of backlash simply for being in this part of the country. She is assaulted and in some sense black listed. Her determination to march on sure is nice, but her value as a character is undermined by her familiarity as a character type.
Woman Walks Ahead feels important, the story and what it represents surely, but it has little character development and seems to cut storytelling corners at every turn. Character ‘growth’ is hurried and thus feels insincere.
That being said it sure looks nice, a similarly beautiful cinematography as other recent movies set in a similar part of the country, The Rider and Lean on Pete, not to mention Terrence Malick’s Badlands.
Up Next: Starman (1984), Trees Lounge (1996), Patriot Games (1992)