Woman Walks Ahead sounds like a great idea in theory but the film goes poorly in its execution.
Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) has an interesting story. The Swiss immigrant arrived to the United States in 1852, where both she and her mom settled in Brooklyn. She would later have a marriage to Bernhard Schlatter end in divorce in 1883. It’s what happened after her marriage ended in which her life would truly begin to get interesting.
Catherine makes the trek to North Dakota after the death of her mom. She does so to live among the Lakota Sioux. The film makes it appear as if she’s there to solely paint portraits of Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). There’s a lot more to the story here than just paintings. This is where the film fails a bit in its execution because they make changes for dramatic purposes. If you’re making a biopic, it should not be fictional at any time. Could the dialogue be off by what happened? Yeah, that’s always possible. But to outright fill in fictional details of real events about real people? It downright hurts the film.
Both Weldon and Sitting Bull have a blooming friendship on the Standing Rock reservation similar to what we saw in Victoria and Abdul. Greyeyes’ performance as the late tribal leader is a major departure from Hollywood depictions of Native Americans. He comes off as a sophisticated person with a sense of humor as any human would.
In spite of those changes, the filmmakers want to stress what happened to Native Americans as a result of the 1887 Dawes Act. The government policy called for Natives to accept allotments of what indigenous tribal land was left. If Native Americans chose to accept the allotments and no longer live with their tribe, they would become US citizens. Making a film about this part of US history would have likely made for a more compelling film if told through the right lens.
As is the case with any US native wanting to live among the native tribes, there’s going to be some resistance. This comes by way of a US Army officer, Colonel Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell). Groves has troops stationed around the reservation. Other army officers include General George Crooke (Bill Camp) and Agent James McLaughlin (Ciarán Hinds). What makes McLaughlin such a fascinating person is that he’s married to a Native but he believes that they can make progress by assimilating into the American way of life. Their behavior doesn’t help tensions between the Lakota tribe and the Americans. Catherine isn’t afraid to stand up to them. She’ll get beat up if she has to in order to stand her ground and be heard.
Jessica Chastain is a great actress but Woman Walks Ahead isn’t her best work nor is it her best film. It’s a shame because I’m sure there’s a great story to be told about Weldon’s time with Sitting Bull. It’s a bump in the road but she’ll bounce back with no problem.
Woman Walks Ahead shows that there’s still more work to be done. The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation has been in the news over the last few years because of the Dakota Access oil pipeline. Some things just don’t change.
DIRECTOR: Susanna White
SCREENWRITER: Steven Knight
CAST: Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer, Sam Rockwell, Ciarán Hinds, Bill Camp
Following the world premiere during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and the US premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, A24 and DirecTV released Woman Walks Ahead exclusively on DirecTV on May 31, 2018.