A modest yet challenging look at a legendary warrior and the woman who resurrected his formidable spirit in time of great injustice — Woman Walks Ahead is a snippet of history crafted with unforgiving purity by director Susanna White (Our Kind of Traitor). From the nightmarish conditions experienced by the Sioux people to the violent resistance painter Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) faced as she ventured into the depths of battlefields turned perilous Great Plains in late 19th century Dakota.
Weldon, an idealistic widow (only divorced, actually, in real life) from New York travels west to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull — played by Canadian actor Michael Greyeyes — the once great Sioux leader who now spends his days farming potatoes in solitude while the fate of his family and land hang in the balance.
White and writer Steven Knight (Locke) recreate a time in history that saw warring factions split the foundation of a country apart, taking the frontier and assassinating the rightful owners of the plains. Chastain has already made her mark; we knew she was going to be star back when she embodied the licensed killer of America’s most wanted in Zero Dark Thirty, but here she’s the arbiter of tolerance, the persistent artist who didn’t just come to the heart of treachery to paint a fading giant, she come to find herself as Sitting Bull’s advisor and inspiration.
White keeps the drama taut while positioning it beside a raw aesthetic, perhaps a bit too unpolished. It’s a quiet endeavour with uneasy surges of emotion throughout. Greyeyes’ presence is astounding, overshadowing every inch of the screen when he appears. The larger than life fighter and holy man, forced into submission but his heart still strong and his body physically mangled. He mentions the bullets lodged in his torso and how they dance inside him. Sitting Bull at the end of his run is fascinating, a ghost of the past not yet joining the dance of the dead.
Woman Walks Ahead culminates with the Wounded Knee Massacre, a devastating thorn in America’s past among the plethora of disaster that Native Americans endured. Before the horse dances for Sitting Bull’s demise, we are allowed to share his final chapter, in which a woman from another world champions his way of life and the legacy he must nail down before his enemies, the tyrannical government cogs and the embittered generals (Sam Rockwell and Bill Camp as villainous army men) behind the gavel destroy him. Before this we witness moments of beauty between Weldon and Bull, a swan song of sorts through dusky skies and authentic cinematic wide shots that hold radiant beside a moving narrative.