Jessica Chastain may be one of the best actresses around at playing strong, assertive women, as she has demonstrated in films from “Zero Dark Thirty” to “Molly’s Game.” And Sam Rockwell is terrific at playing bigots, as he demonstrated in winning an Oscar last year. Put them together in roles that are right in their wheelhouses, and the results should have been electrifying. Unfortunately, “Woman Walks Ahead,” although an earnest look at an actual historical incident, proves to be less than the sum of its parts.
The movie is based on a portion of the life of Caroline Weldon, an Indian-rights activist and artist who painted some well-known portraits of Sitting Bull at his home at the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. The events surrounding the paintings led to the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee, and “Woman Walks Ahead” will give modern-day audiences a better, albeit somewhat inaccurate, understanding of what went on. In the movie, the widowed and rather naïve Weldon (who was actually a divorcee with a son in real life) decides to go to South Dakota to make something of herself. She finds that the Indians are being pressured to sign a treaty giving up much of their reservation land and that the government is cutting their rations to persuade them to sign. An angry Weldon throws her lot in with the Indians and tries to persuade Sitting Bull, who is content to live out his days on his small farm, to side with her.
Chastain is quite good as Weldon, as might be expected, and Michael Greyeyes brings surprising power and dignity to the role of Sitting Bull. He is gradually and somewhat grudgingly drawn into the dispute, but when he finally takes a stand and gives a speech recommending that his fellow tribe members reject the treaty, it is the most powerful scene in the movie.
If director Susanna White had been content to stick with the actual events, “Woman Walks Ahead” could have been a powerful drama. Unfortunately, she apparently didn’t believe in the strength of this material and tacks on an invented and highly clichéd, almost love affair between Weldon and Sitting Bull to juice up the story. In real life, the two had a parting of the ways stemming from their disagreement over the best course of action (Weldon was an Indian rights activist before she went west), and she was already back east when the climactic events in the movie occurred. Here, however, the pair engage in one of those we’re-attracted-to-each-other-but-we-know-there-is-no-future-so-we-do-the-noble-thing affairs, accompanied by longing glances and wistful sighs. This platonic affair never quite rings true.
Another discordant note in “Woman Walks Ahead” is the character of Colonel Grove, played by Rockwell. He is originally introduced as a rabid Indian hater (reminding Weldon that many of the soldiers in the territory lost friends at the Little Big Horn). But he gradually mellows a bit, not so much because his character gains a greater understanding of the Indian point of view, but because the plot demands that he act in a particular way to advance the story.
Since many people are quite unfamiliar with the entire story that led to the massacre at Wounded Knee (not shown in the movie), “Woman Walks Ahead” is an eye-opener in that regard, and the performances of Chastain and Greyeyes are solid, leading to some genuinely emotional moments. But the story of Weldon and Sitting Bull deserved better treatment than it receives here. I still recommend the movie, but it walks behind just a bit too much.