There have been some outstanding modern westerns popping up over the last decade or so that have dispensed with the squinting show-downs between nameless drifters and sneering ne’er-do-wells in favour of looking at the stark, brutal beauty of the frontier – often a far more abrupt depiction!
In Woman Walks Ahead, Jessica Chastain plays a New York artist, struck by the apparent serene grandeur of paintings of the Wild West. Easel under arm she sets out by train to where no military man’s wife nor missionary has gone before, to capture the portrait of Sitting Bull, leader of the Lakota tribe who are being ‘encouraged’ to sign a treaty to further reduce their reserve territory. It’s 1890 and Native Americans and the US military have both seen casualties in their eye-for-an-eye exchanges. Memories are fresh and wounds have yet to heal on both sides. Catherine Weldon’s (Chastain) arrival is seen as a potential tinder box that could set ablaze the precarious peaceful agreements between the Native Americans and the US government – her painting of a sympathetic picture might well insight support for the Lakota people.
Michael Greyeyes is the stoic Sitting Bull, the great warrior chief taken to farming in dusty soil, fully aware of the ferocity that will revisit any violent acts, as he swallows down the oncoming changes to his people’s growing dismay. Sam Rockwell lets fly with yet another chameleonic turn as the morally ambiguous Colonel who’s seen (and probably done) far too much to waste time mincing his words.
Not entirely free of physical violence, it’s certainly not what’s at the heart of this film. While the lingering dust of war and the idea that “debts are unpaid” hang like inevitable thunder after a silent flash, it’s words unsaid and arrows quivered that belie the bloodshed that has flowed and the makeshift damn that’s bowing under its strains.
Director Suzanna White has gone off trail through the haunting Dakota plains, vaguely tracking the footsteps of Cormac McCarthy, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff or even the Coen’s recent The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, where the frontier, lacking societal constraints, can unleash the darkest of our own demons and where courage is shown by having grace and dignity in the face of humanity’s monsters.Find your cinema and book tickets