Families displaced, land stolen, women without a voice – sound familiar? Well, it’s all here in the subject matter of Woman Walks Ahead, Susanna White’s stately, based-on-real-life Western that aims to champion underrepresented voices, but which can’t quite sidestep a white savior narrative.
While Westworld offers us a unique (and by the standards of Season 2, a pretty bizarre) remodeling of the Western, Woman Walks Ahead uses the vast landscape for marginalized people, raising issues of indigenous representation, feminist voices, and equal rights. A lot of comments have been made about its timeliness in light of the shocking political situation with immigrants in the US in recent weeks, and I can’t say I disagree.
Woman Walks Ahead
Director: Susanna White
Release Date: July 6, 2018
We find Jessica Chastain’s Catherine Weldon, an 1890s Brooklyn widow who declares ‘my grieving period is over’ as she tosses a painting of her late husband into a river. Alright then. For reasons not entirely clear, this newly liberated artist decides to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), one of the most notorious Native American leaders of his generation, and in the process becomes a political activist. Meanwhile, still smarting from their defeat at Little Bighorn fourteen years previously, US forces are trying to enforce the Allotment Treaty which claims Native American land. The film doesn’t address that, in real life, Caroline “Catherine” Weldon was interested in Native American culture from a young age, or already politically active before her trip West, but it creates a mostly convincing and photogenic biopic for us.
On the journey from New York to North Dakota, Weldon’s naivety becomes apparent: she holds a poorly-judged conversation with a Native American valet, and she is later singled out in the dining car for traveling alone. Although met with hostility from American forces, the Sioux tribe she encounters is decidedly friendlier. Sitting Bull, although initially offish, warms to her much earlier than anticipated: she is hailed as the woman who brought the rain, her arrival marking the end of a three-month drought. The pair begin to bond and predictably their social barriers and prejudices melt away (although their friendship doesn’t really make it beyond a fierce hug). She is named ‘Woman Walks Ahead’ not only for her speedy gait but because she was a pioneer, ahead of her time.
At one point Sitting Bull remarks to Catherine: “Your society values people by how much they have – ours by how much we give away.” The ideas are pleasant, but I can’t help but feel as though there are too many maxims laid on too thick. Silence may have worked better. At times the dialogue seems a little artificial and even the character positioning seems unnatural – the score also feels overly sentimental and out of place. But at other times, the setup is more engaging. When Catherine and Sitting Bull talk through a tent skin, their conversation allows them to build trust with each other, and this propels the story forward in a more sympathetic way. It is also worth noting that not every piece of Native dialect we are given is translated. Some things remain private, and I felt that was a credit to the film.
As time goes on, Catherine becomes more unguarded, letting her hair down, but also realizes that her simple act of painting has become political. And while she wants to live an independent life, men are always out to control her or to guide her actions. Some of these actions are for harm and others are to protect her, but inevitably she has to make decisions that impact others too. Unfortunately, she lacks a real sense of jeopardy until much too late, when she realizes the consequences of her actions for the Native American people.
Sam Rockwell was brilliantly cast as Col. Silas Groves, a disgruntled member of the US forces bent on quelling Native American tribes. The role shared similarities with his performance in Three Billboards, a haunted and conflicted man in power. His grasp of the Native American tribal dialect is surprising but fits excellently with the enigmatic tone of his character. He is compassionate but dangerous, perceptive but unpredictable, playing off against Chastain really well.
But despite some strong performances, the film never really addresses the ulterior motive that US General James McLaughlin (Ciarán Hinds) is harboring in letting Catherine associate with Native Americans. It’s suggested that he uses this in order to steer the campaign for the Allotment Treaty in his favor, but a lot is left to speculation. His oily manners seem to be concealing darker intentions, but although I was waiting for him to spring up with an ambush, it never happens. The plot is often quite patchy, even when drawing to a climax, but it gets where it needs to be in the end.
The final title cards indicating what happens after the events portrayed in the film are inescapably sad: we’re left to ask how much of the film was realistic and how much was just a retelling of a time when the US really screwed up. It also leaves me thinking that the film was made purely to expose the injustices aimed at immigrants, refugees and native residents of the US, who have recently been displaced and separated from their families under Trump. It points to a new phase of female directors using films (just like Catherine’s art) as a political act, and despite lacking in some departments, Woman Walks Ahead is watchable and has something to say.