In Susanna White’s appealing but somewhat flat western, the daring and happily widowed late nineteenth-century artist Catherine Weldon (also known as Caroline Weldon) embarks on a free-spirited journey, trading her comfortable New York life for the dusty plains of North Dakota to paint a portrait of Lakota chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). As Steven Knight’s factually inspired script grows in complexity, the artistic aspirations of (Jessica Chastain) acquire a political breadth: she becomes a well-meaning ally to the Native Americans, before eventually getting blindsided by her own privilege.
Woman Walks Ahead isn’t solely concerned with Catherine’s awakening—it keeps the patronizing white savior trope that dents several otherwise watchable films like The Help and Dances with Wolves in respectful check. Instead, White’s film crosscuts between feminist ideals and a tragic account of the vanished American frontier, dividing the story’s weight between Catherine’s one-woman battle—against Sam Rockwell’s condescending army officer and the outright hostile townsfolk—and the indigenous people’s fight to preserve their reservation. The latter sees the initially apathetic Sitting Bull inspire his Sioux tribe to vote against a treaty calculated to erase them. Meanwhile, the burgeoning friendship between the artist and her equally headstrong subject brings warmth and humor.
A welcome female-led western in the tradition of Meek’s Cutoff and The Homesman, Woman Walks Ahead leaves a rather dry aftertaste—its inspection of the violent American chapter on the brink of the Wounded Knee massacre feels slightly naive. But the resolute Greyeyes and the always-brilliant Chastain chart their respective characters with real chemistry, and White captures the pair’s brewing romantic tension. For underscoring the brief but beautiful optimism of two ill-fated outliers, her woman comes out ahead.