“Woman Walks Ahead” Tries to Revise a Western Past for an Audience Maybe Not Ready for its Future

Woman Walks Ahead is a revisionist Western about the last few weeks of the Lakota Indian chief Sitting Bull. A few weeks after his death the massacre of 300 Lakota at Wounded Knee occurred ending the last of the Indian rebellion.

By foregrounding the true story of Caroline Weldon (Jessica Chastain) an activist and actual portraitist of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), the director (Susanna White, an HBO veteran) and screenwriter (Steven Knight, Allied) insert artsiness in an attempt to elevate Woman Walks Ahead beyond its Western cliches.

The painterly quality of the cinematography attempts to make elegiac the over abundance of wise Sitting Bull dialogue. Most of the time it sounds mythic, but at times it is funnily Yoda.

The female heroine allows for a feminist revision of Western tropes. The cowboy is now the villain and the Indian now the hero, with women attaining equal rights and screen time. The modern Western can only be a tragedy and an elegy to the corruption and death of the American ideal.

Yes, It is a good and just cause. Confronting the sins of Westerns past, may elevate the genre, but the real tragedy is that it may not bring back an old audience not ready or willing to hear it.

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