Starring: Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, Sam Rockwell
Director: Susanna White
Mood: If you want to watch a quiet and beautifully shot Western that’s driven by a relationship rather than action or historical accuracy.
When I ordered Woman Walks Ahead, I was hoping to find a new favourite Western female character.
Jessica Chastain is the kind of actor who always does good work. There are also practically NO Westerns directed by women, so finding a female-driven Western with such a strong cast was a welcome surprise. I had high hopes.
Woman Walks Ahead isn’t quite the feminist Western it appears to be. But it’s definitely worth a watch for other reasons.
Woman Walks Ahead is LOOSELY based on the story of Caroline Weldon, the woman who famously traveled to Standing Rock to paint portraits of legendary Lakota leader Sitting Bull.
When I say loosely, I mean do not base a history report, or your perception of historical events, on this movie.
Caroline (Jessica Chastain) is a New York artist who travels to the Dakota Territory to paint Sitting Bull. Upon arrival she’s accused of having nefarious intentions against the land treaty plans, which she knew nothing about, and she’s forcibly rejected by both Indian Agent James McLaughlin (Ciarán Hinds) and racist cavalryman Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell).
A scout named Chaska (Chaske Spencer) pretends to take orders and escort her out of town, but instead takes her right to his uncle – Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes).
Caroline and Sitting Bull are initially awkward, but it doesn’t take long for them to start opening up to each other. He gives her the name ‘Woman Walks Ahead’ after one of her many misunderstandings about Lakota customs and etiquette. She gets viciously beaten by a pack of racist townsfolk for buying the Lakota people food to supplement their pathetic rations, but she never wavers in her purpose… which she continues to insist is just the painting.
Tensions rise over the land treaty, and it becomes obvious that Sitting Bull is more of a sitting duck. If you know anything about U.S. history, you know this doesn’t end well.
I want to start by saying that there are a lot of things to love about Woman Walks Ahead.
- The cinematography is ABSOLUTELY F*CKING STUNNING – seriously, you need to see these breathtaking scenic views and gorgeous detail shots, all of which often feel like paintings (maybe intentionally?)
- The story is actually pretty good, if you can turn off the part of your brain that clings to historical accuracy
- There is a big cast of actual Native American and First Nations actors, authentic Lakota language is spoken, and there are even scenes where the Lakota language doesn’t have subtitles
- The filmmakers also asked the Indigenous cast to make the decisions regarding the ceremonial Ghost Dance, and how it would be represented on film
- It does bring attention to the grave injustices that have been done, and are still done, to Indigenous people here and around the world
- Yes, this retelling is focused more on relationships than politics, but if what you see makes you do more research, even if those searches happen to start by Googling if that hot scene in the tent actually happened and if Sitting Bull really was that tight – then the movie has done its job
- This is probably just the horse girl in me, but I loved the inclusion of the horse Buffalo Bill gave to Sitting Bull (their alliance is worth a read!), and the story of the horse dancing as he was killed
Speaking of that tent scene, let’s talk about Michael Greyeyes. He doesn’t belong on any old bullet list. He’s on a level above bullet lists.
Greyeyes, a fellow Canadian, gives a seriously outstanding performance as Sitting Bull. He says a lot without doing much. You get this sense of someone who is always watching, taking everything in, and never forgetting. To portray someone as sharp and highly intelligent with limited lines is quite a feat.
Where Wes Studi gave you a stoic and kind of aloof leader in Geronimo: an American Legend, Greyeyes radiates what I can only describe as humanity. His take on Sitting Bull is unquestionably strong, but also thoughtful, funny, and vulnerable.
Jessica Chastain is no slouch, and she gives a beautiful performance as Caroline. That is to say, she did a lot with the role she was given. The reason she didn’t make my list of favourite Western women is because they stripped so much of what’s known about the real Caroline away, I couldn’t fall in love with the character.
The real Caroline made this trip at 45 years old, with her young son in tow, as a member of the National Indian Defense Association and with the purpose of helping the Lakota people fight for their land. She and Sitting Bull became super close friends. She was doing honest work to help his cause. And as in the movie, the white people hated that.
All these articles got written saying she was anti-white, and was boinking Sitting Bull. She warned him that the Ghost Dance movement would give the government reason to kill him. Sitting Bull turned on her, he got killed just like she predicted, and she eventually died alone in her apartment.
See, there was literally no reason to change the details – that right there would have made a GREAT f*cking script. Then the critics wouldn’t have torn into it for being too soft and fluffy.
By making it a male character (Groves) who warns Sitting Bull that he’s in danger, by adding romantic tension, and by making Caronline ‘just a painter’ who didn’t make the journey as a political activist, it strips her story of its powerful feminist message. Author Eileen Pollack, who wrote the non-fiction book Woman Walking Ahead, has said that the movie took many creative liberties, but that she still felt they managed to capture the essence of Caroline’s bravery.
Did screenwriter Steven Knight intentionally dilute Caroline’s story? Did he think this was how to write a Western for women? Hmm.
It was also super unnecessary to cram in a redemption scene for Silas Groves. It’s actually insulting to Caroline’s memory to take away the action of warning her beloved friend, and give it to a fictional racist.
Woman Walks Ahead could have been truly great, with all that brilliant acting from each and every actor, from the leads to supporting actors like David Midthunder and Bill Camp. Like I said, there are so many good qualities about it.
If even half of the true story had been left intact, I’m sure it would have handily defeated other modern Westerns to which it’s drawn comparison (hello, Hostiles).
The bond between Caroline and Sitting Bull IS enjoyable to watch. It’s a good movie about the complexities of human relationships, and about interracial friendship at a time when that wasn’t a thing.
Watch this movie for the cinematography. Watch it several times to appreciate the talent of Michael Greyeyes. And definitely do your own research into the events portrayed.
As I said in my review of Geronimo’s book, I don’t want to be yet another white person benefiting from Indigenous stories (even if nobody pays me to do this, and nobody actually reads my brilliant reviews). So I’m making another purchase from an Indigenous-owned company. This time it’s Manitobah Mukluks, and I am super stoked because I have desperately wanted moccasins ever since reading all those Sackett books.