Like its prairie setting, Susanna White's Woman Walks Ahead is often a quiet, buggy kind of beautiful, not the kind of thing you might seek out exactly, but the kind that can sneak up on and envelope you when you're in the middle of it. The vistas and soundscapes, for a time, quelled my disquiet about the film's framing of the last days of Sitting Bull and the American government's efforts to strip away Native American land and lives. White's drama is a historical tête-à-tête about a "New York liberal" portrait artist (Jessica Chastain) who decamps to Dakota territory in the 1880s on a mission to paint Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes).
In reality, Caroline Weldon journeyed to the Dakotas as an activist member of the National Indian Defense Association, eager to help. White's film makes Weldon a naif, a widowed dabbler with the wild hair of an idea to paint the great chieftain – which gives the filmmakers the opportunity to craft a narrative of outraged discovery and growing conviction. She learns from Sitting Bull himself that resisting can serve as a powerful form of self-actualization. "Live more," he tells her, as if he's Robin Williams telling prep school kids to seize the day.
Making Weldon a political novice suggests, in a slippery way, that the purest activism happens outside of politics, that she would be somehow less noble if she had planned in advance her efforts to feed starving families and to organize tribal leaders against a draconian new treaty. The script is at odds with Chastain's typically gutsy performance, though Greyeyes is stirring as a man of power and vision whose world is being stolen from him.