Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews as I go through the process of making my own 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.


Week Forty Two: Woman Walks Ahead

It is sometimes hard to separate the person from the work. I remember seeing Jessica Chastain’s performance in Zero Dark Thirty and being blown away, feeling that she must be the next great American actress. Since then, I have been annoyed by her public statements, many of which feel like she’s commenting on things that are really none of her business. I’ve also felt like a certain self-important attitude has filtered from her off-camera self into her performances and weakened them since that masterpiece by Kathryn Bigelow. I say all this because I skipped Woman Walks Ahead for this very reason, avoiding the film as it popped up as recommended on several streaming services. The other day, I finally said “To hell with it” and decided to give the film a watch.

Chastain’s performance is good, not great, and does hint of her recent real life persona but does not ruin a movie that is certainly worth watching, if flawed. What I like about Woman Walks Ahead is its focus on character and relationships. Here is a Western that doesn’t get lost in the action or the spectacle; it’s about the people. And though this remains its main focus from beginning to end, it is still not enough, distracted by the details of history when it should have remained more intimate.

Somehow, the script, actors, and director are unable to make these relationships resonate. Though this is based on a true story, I felt that some of the focus on the course of events could have been lost to purely investigate this fascinating connection between a white woman and native chief. Their interactions are interesting but there’s something missing. It’s what Dances with Wolves had in spades: heart. There’s a lack of feeling here, a passion that just does not appear. However unrealistic Costner’s film may have been at times, it has more emotion in its first scene of white/native interaction than this does in nearly two hours. The film is almost clinical, detached. When we come to the conclusion, we should be aching inside for this man and woman but we’re not… or at least I wasn’t. I felt like I was watching from a great distance.

The same goes for Rockwell’s character. It’s his precense in the film that finally convinced me to watch it. He’s an actor who is worth studying regardless of what he’s in. But here, his character is quite undeveloped. It’s only in the last quarter of the film that he’s revealed to be incredibly complex but when you rewind in your mind, did the rest of his performance really justify this revelation? I don’t think so. They could have done much more with this tortured soldier but he’s mostly kept to the sidelines, left in 2D until he has this sudden three dimensional moment right before the film ends.

I’m glad I finally saw Woman Walks Ahead and overcame by bias. It’s good to look at films that don’t work as much as films that do.

Seen on Amazon Prime.