Jessica Chastain and Sam Rockwell may get top billing in Catherine Weldon’s romantic deconstruction of the western, but Michael Greyeyes steals the show.
Lakota leader Sitting Bull is the subject of Catherine Weldon’s portrait project. Even when he’s the object of a white woman’s eyes, he exercises a rich dimension of sternness, skepticism, and pragmatism beyond her lavish brushstrokes. Jessica Chastain may be the protagonist and the top-billing name, but Michael Greyeyes, as Sitting Bull, is the true star of this earnest, but fractured historical 19th-century romance.
The film opens with an impression of Native Americans and Catherine Weldon transfixed on their fictional freedom. Now a Brooklyn widow, Weldon does not mourn her husband and the marriage, which forced her painting career on hiatus. Her widowhood liberates her to return to pursue her passion project to paint the Native American leader Sitting Bull, intent on reproducing the “freedom” she saw in impressions. Unlike her real-life counterpart who bore conscious activism, Weldon ventures to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota with no political intentions. From her train window, she stares in awe of rolling vistas (shot lushly by cinematographer Mike Eley) that caters to a white woman’s romanticism. She disregards the caveats of militant colonels. She’s unaware that her pursuit to paint—valorize—a Native American is a political act worthy of incrimination. With masculine entitlement, Colonel Silas Grove (Sam Rockwell) plays faux-gentlemen to her and drops cautions while making opportunistic passes at her.
When she is finally escorted to the Lakota reservation by a Sioux member (Chaske Spence), she is disillusioned by the lack of imagined grandeur and the abject poverty of the reservation. Her intent was to paint Sitting Bull without charging him, but he turns the tables and asks for $1000. If he’s going to be spectated by a white woman, he might as well make the best of it for his impoverished community with meager rations. As she partakes in her rather idyllic goal, she and Sitting Bull become allies against a government treaty that stipulates that the Native Americans must surrender their land.
Director Susanna White approaches Sitting Bull and Weldon’s interplay with an intersectional consciousness. With doe-eyed naiveté and a witty tongue, Chastain balances out her character’s impressionability with her forward-mindedness that seems irresistible. But although Sitting Bull trusts her intents, he doesn’t overlook that her white womanhood can be transgressive and condescending on his territory. While he acquiesces to her portrait requests, including her wish for him to wear traditional garb, he complies but sets his boundaries around her. When she implores him to wear feathers, he lays down a terse education on cultural decorum: “[I don’t wear feathers for the] same reason you don’t wear your wedding dress.” With weariness and vigor, Greyeyes plays Sitting Bull with a calculative mildness that conceals his firmness until he’s ready to brandish it.
It sounds groan-worthy that Weldon and Sitting Bull engage in the banter of a romantic comedy, courtesy of culture clash. Fortunately, the film wisely dangles the romantic conventions without surrendering, with the two half-unconsciously entertaining an arms-length courtship. In a heated scene where Weldon and Sitting Bull undress to escape a nightly storm, their held gazes insinuate a physical passion playing in their heads. Fortunately, they avert succumbing to external Hollywood consummation. While they lack the vocabulary to discuss it, they sense the implication of a white woman sleeping with a Native American when social and racial inequalities remain.
The script toys with the Lakota language with cerebral coyness. Utilizing their silence, untranslated words, subtitles, spoken translations, Sitting Bull and the Native American supporting players have dynamic agency over their cultural expressions against colonialists and Weldon. Sitting Bull is first introduced with silence and his words left untranslated to establish the barrier between him and Catherine. When Sitting Bull delivers a pivotal speech to his fellow tribes in his native tongue, he is not given subtitles but he’s translated by an indigenous face, profoundly the wife (Rulan Tangen) of a white colonel who abandoned her “old ways”.
The film keeps Weldon’s white woman mentality in check. There’s a worrying sequence that seemingly stations Weldon as a leader to the Native Americans people in the campaign against the treaty. As she attempts to explain election protocol in Lakota tongue, she stumbles. She defers to Sitting Bull to elaborate on election specifics in his language. He instructs, “I cannot be seen taking orders from you. We’ll wait.” They wait before he stands up and delivers. While he requires her outsider’s counsel out of practicality, he wields over agency over his leadership rather than permitting Weldon to take the white savior pose.
Despite intersectional consciousness, the movie is not without its fumbles, threatening to give the lead to Weldon’s white feminism through her tears and agony. When Sitting Bull presents her his own rite-of-passage art, she acknowledges that her fight for significance and social and economic autonomy would never be as severe as Sitting Bull’s battle for independence. But then she commands the beauty born out of his anguish, crediting the quality of his art to systematic oppression and personal suffering. Notably, Weldon’s solo scene of ripening outspoken feminism, such as her asserting herself to the military, is underwhelming against her interactions with Sitting Bull because he upends her problematic influences when she exercises her forte.
By the end of the film, Weldon slinks into a supporting character role as a witness to Sitting Bull’s narrative. In an elegant over-the-head beauty shot, when Weldon kneels to the ground, the dark of the dress gives her the appearance of an asterisk. That is all she is in Sitting Bull’s story.