Woman Walks Ahead

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Woman Walks Ahead Movie Poster Image
Touching fact-based tale of woman artist has violent scenes.
  • R
  • 2018
  • 101 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Follow your dreams, persevere, don't give up easily. Do what you know is right, even when it's difficult. The film celebrates a strong friendship between a white woman and a Native American in a time when racism was rampant. Also supports the fight to protect Native Americans' rights.

Positive Role Models & Representations

As depicted here, Weldon is a strong role model. She enjoys being free from social/familial expectations, she explores her creative side, and she makes her own decisions. Verbal threats, physical attacks don't deter her from doing what's right. She's afraid, but she faces her fears many times. Sitting Bull is portrayed with nuance and depth. Weldon's opposition ranges from outright racists to more conflicted characters who don't disagree with her ideals but do question her methods and zeal.

Violence

Brutal scene in which a woman is severely beaten by two men. She's hit in the head with a rock, grabbed, punched in the face, and kicked. One of her attackers urinates on the ground, grabs a handful of the moistened dirt, and smears it on her face. Another man spits on her and uses foul, graphic language. Her face is left very bloody and bruised. Character is shot and killed, with a blood spurt; grief shown. Also painted images of violence, fights, blood, etc. Rifle shooting. References to shootings and killings. References to scalping. Reference to abortion. Threatening character holding a knife.

Sex

A man changes clothes; he's out of focus, but his naked bottom can be seen. A woman claims she paints "naked people all the time." Scene of sexual tension while a man and a woman take off their outer layers of wet clothes after a rainstorm. Mild sex-related talk.

Language

Uses of "f--k," "bitch," "hell," "damn," "stupid," "goddamn," and "for Christ's sake."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Spoken references to characters drinking/being drunk. Cigar shown.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Woman Walks Ahead is a fact-based drama about New York painter Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), who traveled alone in 1890 to the Dakotas to paint a portrait of Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). There's a very upsetting scene of shocking violence against her: A rock hits her in the head; she's grabbed, punched, and kicked; and urine-soaked mud is rubbed in her face. She's shown bloody and bruised afterward. Other characters are shot and killed, with blood spurts, and there are several spoken references to shooting, killing, and other types of violence. Language isn't especially frequent but includes uses of "f--k," "s--t," "bitch," and more. There's a brief, out-of-focus shot of a naked male bottom, some sex-related talk, and a few sexually charged moments. Cigars are shown, and there's a reference to a character being drunk. Despite the mature material in some scenes, this drama has a satisfying emotional center, and Weldon is a strong role model with conviction and agency.

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What's the story?

In WOMAN WALKS AHEAD, it's 1890, and New York painter Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) decides that she's done mourning her late (and not much lamented) husband, and it's time to follow her dream. She wants to paint a portrait of Chief Sitting Bull, so she travels to North Dakota's Standing Rock reservation. But she receives a chilly reception from the white military men stationed there. Colonel Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell), who seems to have his own history with the Native Americans, is especially pushy. Still, Weldon manages to find and befriend Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), and they set to work on the portrait. But it soon becomes clear that trouble is brewing as the U.S. military tries to push through a crooked treaty that will let them take half of the Lakota tribe's land. Sitting Bull and Weldon must decide how far to get involved before things get dangerous.

Is it any good?

Susanna White's biographical drama is a little traditional and occasionally a little stiff, but the growing relationship between Weldon and Sitting Bull at its center offers rich emotional rewards. Woman Walks Ahead (the title refers to a name given to Weldon by Sitting Bull) starts out as most "important" based-on-a-true-story movies do, with dates and places printed on the screen and with characters making fateful decisions about their lives. The characters' early interactions are routine and sometimes awkward, especially when Sitting Bull ridicules Weldon for underestimating him.

But as they get to know each other, the posturing falls away, and true things start to come out; their friendship and mutual respect, and even a moment of romantic tension, are eventually quite touching. Rockwell's character, too, evolves in an interesting way. At first he's an unpleasantly nasty, relentless racist, but in a powerful climactic scene, he reveals a complex backstory. He's not necessarily nicer, but he's more human. The screenplay by the talented Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Locke, Allied) manages to deal with Native American issues without seeming too heavy, and director White (Our Kind of Traitor), with only a bit of irritating camera wobbling, creates an Old West that's full of constricting interiors and glorious, overcast landscapes.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Woman Walks Ahead's violence. Did it shock you? Was it necessary to the story? How does it compare to what you might see in an action or war movie? Do all types of media violence have the same impact?

  • Is Weldon a positive role model? Why or why not? What are her flaws -- and her character strengths?

  • How does this movie's portrayal of Native Americans compare to others you've seen? What does Weldon learn about the Lakota people during the movie? How does her approach to Sitting Bull and his people compare to that of the other white characters?

  • The movie isn't wholly true to the details of Weldon's life (she was divorced, not widowed; she had a child; and she went by Caroline rather than Catherine). Why do you think the filmmakers chose to alter what actually happened? How could you find out more?

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