Is a film still considered a “white savior” story if its white protagonist never actually saves anything? In the case of Susanna White’s “Woman Walks Ahead,” it’s certainly not for lack of trying. A listless but lustrously shot biopic about the 19th century New York widow who traveled to North Dakota, painted the Sioux chief Sitting Bull, and then served as an advocate for his tribe as they fought the United States government’s attempts to expropriate their land, the movie almost credits Catherine Weldon as being solely responsible for the Native American resistance to the Dawes Act. Moreover, it also forgives her role in the massacre that followed. On their own, those issues are more frustrating than fatal. As a self-contained story, however, the film suffers enormously from its slippery grasp of history, all of its narrative thrust slipping through the cracks between fact and fiction.
It all begins in 1890, when the Swiss-born Weldon (Jessica Chastain, sporting an unplaceable accent that she owns through sheer force of will) suddenly decides that she wants to escape Manhattan and head west. In truth, she had already joined the National Indian Defense Association, and boarded that train with every intention of helping the Sioux people protect their land. In the movies, Catherine leaves town on a whim, determined to paint the great Sitting Bull because he epitomizes the freedom that she’s always wanted for herself.
Whether screenwriter Steven Knight (“Locke”) invented this detail or not, Chastain convincingly sells an origin story about how Catherine’s father broke her like a horse because she wouldn’t behave like a lady. No contemporary American screen actress has more consistently — or more forcefully — used her platform to champion feminist ideals, and Chastain’s performance is a worthy addition to the cause. As portrayed here, Catherine is headstrong and full of heart; she’s a smart woman who’s been liberated from her late husband and refuses to “know her place.”
Fittingly, “Woman Walks Ahead” is at its best when it allows Catherine to stand by herself along the horizon, her long dress billowing against the powder blue skies that stretch above the Great Plains. Throw in a parasol for good measure and it gets even better. “It’s a free country,” someone helpfully points out, and Catherine illustrates that better than any of the Native American characters in the film.
Chastain plays the part as a woman who’s just discovering the pleasures of her own personal agency. She defaults to a sweetly awed smile, and seldom allows herself to pout. She just lose a step when someone spits in her face for being sympathetic towards the Sioux, or when someone else steals her luggage, or even when she’s beaten within an inch of her life. Not even the faintly ominous Col. Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell) can break Catherine’s stride.
Eventually, after stepping into the murky tensions that are developing around the Dawes Act, Catherine is introduced to the great Hunkpapa Lakota chief. Played by Michael Greyeyes, a Canadian Plains Cree actor who’s familiar from films like “Smoke Signals” and “The New World,” Sitting Bull is a fascinating character. We meet him as he’s digging potatoes, hiding from the end of his world. He’s a dejected leader who looks at his people’s sacred land and sees buffalo bones collecting on the hilltops like snowcaps. Wise but rarely hokey, noble but generally dispirited, he agrees to pose for Catherine if she pays him a cool $1,000. It’s unclear what he plans to do with the money, or if he even needs it, but white people have taken so much from him that he might as well get a little something in return.
The scenes between Chastain and Greyeyes are all pleasant enough, as both actors have the charisma required to power through the many dull stretches of Knight’s patchy script, which always feels a bit too much like a first draft. Would this have been a better film if it didn’t pretend that Sitting Bull didn’t have a wife, erasing her in favor of some unresolved sexual tension? It’s hard to say, but it certainly would have been a more interesting one. As it stands, the two characters form a tenuous bond that the movie doesn’t have the courage to test; we just take it for granted that Sitting Bull should care more for this wayward white lady than he does any of his own people.
He listens to her above anyone else, as well — even more than she listens to him. Before long, “Woman Walks Ahead” completely loses track of Catherine’s evolution from hobbyist portrait artist to Native American activist (in large part because Knight is blazing this revisionist trail for the very first time). The film’s pivot from intimate character study to sweeping political drama is as awkward as watching Catherine paint, and as dull as watching her pain dry.
White’s film doesn’t work when it fudges history, but it completely stalls when it tries to condense it. Winsome actors like Ciarán Hinds and Bill Camp are sprinkled in to help ease the transition, but their roles do more to confuse than they do to add context. The stretch of time in which Catherine effectively serves as Sitting Bull’s political advisor finds the story at its least believable and its most inert; by the time we finally get to see the finished portrait she made of him, its power as a totem of interracial harmony has been diluted by the withering bond between these unexpected allies.
White society values people for how much they have, and Sioux society values people for how much they give away, but “Woman Walks Away” — paint-by-numbers for a Western with such an unusual premise — values only what it can steal from history in order to serve its ostensibly progressive goals. It’s not a movie about how the Sioux were all but erased from their own land by the United States government, it’s a movie about how a white woman came to North Dakota and convinced Sitting Bull to stand up for himself. Catherine may have ventured out West to paint the essence of freedom, but the scattershot movie that White has fashioned about her merely paints over it.
“Woman Walks Ahead” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.