In attempting to portray how the West was really won, ‘Woman Walks Ahead’ loses
The United States’ treatment of indigenous peoples is one of its paramount national sins. The release of “Woman Walks Ahead,” a film that attempts to grapple with this scar on American history, seems deftly placed two days after the country’s symbolic birthday.
What ensues however is a haphazardly executed film loosely based on true events that fails in gracing the viewers with any message deeper than “how we treated the Natives was bad.”
Jessica Chastain plays artist Catherine Weldon, who takes a trip to North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation in order to paint the Lakota Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). The only redeeming quality of this film is the fact that the Lakota people are portrayed by predominantly Native American actors, a feat that is seldom even attempted. The film shouldn’t be applauded for doing the bare minimum, however.
Weldon, recently widowed, makes it clear from the beginning that she values her independence more than most things. This never comes across in the film, however. If this was director Susanna White’s attempt at creating a feminist work of art it failed in that respect, as Weldon, instead of signalling independence, disrespects Lakota traditions and embarrasses herself at almost every turn.
At absolutely no fault of Chastain’s, Weldon isn’t even the runner up to the most interesting character on screen. Sitting Bull is portrayed as a charismatic, if not brooding character in this film, and equally intriguing is Colonel Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell), a veteran of the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn, where Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse led a massive assault against Union forces, subsequently obliterating them.
Groves is given an arc somewhat similar to Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) in last year’s “Hostiles,” a film that despite its significant flaws demonstrates the complexities of the relationship between Native Americans and the military that removed them from their homes. Like Blocker, Groves is unequivocally racist. When writer Steven Knight attempts to give Blocker any sort of redemption, it immediately falls flat. Whenever he appears on screen he is nothing short of disgusting both toward Sitting Bull and Weldon. His laughable attempt at redemption toward the end of the film is completely unjustified, given his history with the Lakota people.
The goals of “Woman Walks Ahead” are almost entirely unclear, as the actions of Weldon and Sitting Bull at the center of the film are ultimately made futile by the last ten minutes.
“Woman Walks Ahead” is a deeply troubling film about one of America’s great national tragedies. What it works best as is a watered-down, visual precursor to the events that transpired at Wounded Knee, where the Lakota people were mercilessly slaughtered by the same men who had fought them years earlier at Little Bighorn.
The commanding performances of Greyeyes and Chastain, albeit in poorly-written roles, are the only things that save “Woman Walks Ahead” from complete disaster. Even with these performances, the film does little more than leave the viewer sad and disappointed.
“Woman Walks Ahead” was released July 6, 2018
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