Movie review: 'Woman Walks Ahead' quickly falls behind

Jessica Chastain stars in wishy-washy historical drama that plays fast and loose with the facts

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In "Woman Walks Ahead," Jessica Chastain plays Catherine Weldon, a painter from New York City who travels to North Dakota to paint the legendary Lakota leader Sitting Bull.  

Michael Greyeyes, left and Jessica Chastain star in "Woman Walks Ahead."

Her trip turns overtly political, as she winds up involving herself in the fight for Sitting Bull and his people to hold onto their land and stand against the soldiers looking to strip it from them via the Dawes Act. The movie, meanwhile, is caught between a staid historical drama and a dull romantic weepie, and doesn't leave much of an impression either way.

It's 1890 and Weldon arrives via train to North Dakota where she's immediately marked by several, including Col. Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell), as a "liberal troublemaker." (He's more right than the movie leads on, as the real-life Weldon came packing a political agenda — she was a member of the National Indian Defense Association — that Steven Knight's screenplay never bothers to mention.) Weldon's initial meeting with Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) is fraught with tension, with the Native American leader demanding a $1,000 payday to be painted. She agrees, and only then does he begin to warm to her. 

And warm they do, as director Susanna White ("Our Kind of Traitor") sets these two up for a romance that is hinted at but wisely never carried out. There are some interesting layers to the twisty political schemes that are and Weldon's often unwitting role in them, but mostly "Woman Walks Ahead" falls flat.

As history, it plays too fast and loose with the facts (both Weldon and Sitting Bull were much older than their characters are here). As a drama, it never quite ignites.

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'Woman Walks Ahead'


Rated R for brief violence and language

Running time: 103 minutes