In the 1880s, widow Catherine Weldon travels alone to North Dakota to paint the portrait of Chief Sitting Bull. The Lakota aren’t thrilled by her arrival (at least not until she brings the rain) but it’s the US Army that’s the real problem. Officer Groves and his men are stationed at Standing Rock in order to undermine the Native American’s land claim. Any friend of the Lakota is an enemy of theirs, which basically means that the soldiers will literally spit in her eye.
Catherine (Jessica Chastain) is “just here to paint a painting” but as she befriends the Lakota, and Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) in particular, the government provides a tighter and tighter squeeze. Catherine and Sitting Bull share a common goal in freedom, and independence, but Groves’ (Sam Rockwell) continued menace is a threat to them both.
It’s a fascinating true story that’s perhaps not quite fascinatingly told. It doesn’t tell us nearly enough about the time or the people, so it’s hard to justify its existence. But I really like Jessica Chastain, and she tends to make wise and informed career decisions, so I lean toward giving this the benefit of the doubt. This could easily veer into white saviour territory, and maybe it defaults too much toward politeness, but I think it strives to be a respectful and faithful rendering. I just wish it could be entertaining as well. And I really wish it didn’t take one insignificant white woman to tell the story of an entire people, but if that’s how we have to frame it, then (I guess) this more feminist bent is at least an improvement.
Now let us talk about Jessica Chastain for a moment. Jessica Chastain the actor, but more importantly, Jessica Chastain the principled woman. I don’t know her personally at all, but I see that she is walking the walk, using her privilege and position of power to raise up the talented women with whom she surrounds herself. Not unlike her character in this film, she is fighting battles for equality. Twice Oscar nominated, her talent is raw and smoldering. Undeniably a beautiful woman and a style icon, she’s not afraid to appear in this film without a stitch of makeup and with substantial armpit stains (I’ll credit this bit of realism to her female director, Susanna White, who doesn’t feel compelled to turn a “painter of a certain age” into a sexpot, which is 100% what would have happened under the direction of literally any man). Now what do we have to do to get this story told from the Lakota perspective, with a Native director in the chair?