Woman Walks Ahead
Starring Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, Sam Rockwell, Ciarán Hinds, Bill Camp
It was the TIFF film that held the most interest for me, because the subject matter was unlike anything else I read about. Even director Susana White (Our Kind of Traitor) admitted that the timing of this project, written by Steven Knight (Locke, Eastern Promises) 14 years earlier, was immensely surprising given the recent pipeline events in North Dakota. Woman Walks Ahead chronicles the little-known story of how a woman from New York came to befriend legendary Sioux Indian Sitting Bull. For an independent film (that was still for sale at Toronto at the time of this review), Chastain and White do grand things under an endless sky in New Mexico, doubling for North Dakota in 1890. Chastain (Molly’s Game) delivers the compelling performance you expect, but it’s Greyeyes (The New World) that leaves the biggest impression.
Following the death of her oppressive husband she was given to at an early age. Catherine Weldon (Chastain) heads west on a train for North Dakota during a dangerous period in US land expansion. Her intent is to rectify the lack of Sioux Indian paintings available to the public. Specifically, she wants to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull. Following some male chauvinistic dominance and political rhetoric, she makes her way to the home of the man she seeks. What she finds is a dusty potato farmer whose zest for life has been taken away by Washington deals. The two become friends, and she finds purpose in helping persuade the tribe to vote against this new deal being carried out by local enforcers. Weldon becomes enemy number one of the locals as she interferes and gives hope to the indigenous.
The subject matter and the land are the most interesting elements to Woman Walks Ahead.
There is a moment when Chastain first arrives in North Dakota, visiting a local graveyard of Americans who died fighting the Indians. It’s not as much about what she sees, as what’s going on behind her. White captures one of the most beautiful naturally lit scenes of the festival and maybe the year. As the sun sets, clouds in the distance dropping rain and lightning flashes. Nothing is computer generated. This isn’t the only breathtaking scene where the crew caught natural elements behind the actors. White’s goal of making the land one of the characters is an enormous success. From the moment Weldon pulls up the shades of her train car, she is enamored by the land, so are we.
The subject matter and the land are the most interesting elements to Woman Walks Ahead. It’s not quite a western in the traditional sense, there are no battles. As a historical drama, it does come up a bit short on the character development, even with Weldon who is already in her carriage headed for the train depot when the film begins. Rockwell’s character barely scratches the surface to what he’s about, Hinds is nearly entirely wasted as is Molly’s Game co-star Bill Camp. The narrative occurs between conversations of Weldon and Sitting Bull. It’s another film where unlikely people find their way into each others lives in a powerful way that confuses society (i.e. Victoria & Abdul, Call Me By Your Name, Battle of the Sexes). It may not have the flash or excitement needed to grace top ten lists or garner awards, but it’s a fascinating element of history that’s never found its way to the big screen until now.
A timely and evocative story of woman, men and land.