'Godless': TV Review

An excellent dust-up of a genre.
11/22/2017

Scott Frank and Steven Soderbergh breathe new life into the Western with this Netflix series starring Jeff Daniels, Jack O'Connell, Michelle Dockery and Sam Waterston.

The Western has been a troubled genre ever since the best films did all they could with it — even, arguably, bringing it back from the dead with Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven in 1992.

Results were mixed, at best, from then on — on both the big and small screen. But the genre got a real jolt with HBO's reimagination of Westworld. That series took the dusty Western, tilted it toward science fiction and, in doing so, made it gleamingly modern and fresh.

But there's still plenty of story left in the Western, as Netflix's limited series, Godless, proves. Created, written and directed by Scott Frank (Out of Sight), the seven-part show has a star-studded cast, a feminist bent, an eye toward issues other than stolen gold or railroad robberies, and exceptional performances all around, while honoring many of the conventions that give fans of the genre that warm, familiar feeling that keeps drawing them back to these kinds of stories.

And yes, if you need an account of those traits, just think squinty eyes, gunfights, bar brawls, rattlesnakes, wide vistas and the occasional church bell ringing in a town all shot to hell. Call those cliches if you want, but when they're pulled off with aplomb — and in Frank's hands, they are — then it's hard not to love the effort even if you approach it with trepidation.

Godless delivers. And it's both smart and entertaining in the process.

Executive produced by Steven Soderbergh and filled with inspired casting choices, Godless is essentially about what most Westerns are about: a black hat and a white hat, inevitably coming into conflict. Thankfully Frank blurs those moral distinctions a lot and lets Godless veer between dialogue-rich character drama and pistol/rifle badassery.

Jeff Daniels is Frank Griffin, the black-hat sociopath with a terrible upbringing and, well, some serious issues that he's been carrying around. Griffin sees Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell) as a son. But things went sideways between the two, as they often do in a Western, and dead-eyed gunslinger Roy has been on the run, nearly dying at the door of Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey), who would have blown his head off herself if the moon had been a little brighter. As it stands, she just shoots him in the neck, which lets you know right away that Godless isn't messing around. And yes, Godless is exactly the kind of series that knows how to put a rifle in Lady Mary's hands and make you sit up in your seat with anticipation.

Ah, but Alice is not the only do-not-mess-with type in La Belle, New Mexico, a mining town that lost nearly every man in it within minutes after a mine explosion. Instantly you've got a town full of women — and an old Western trope turned on its head. This scenario is best presented via Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie), who decides to put some pants on, drop her married name and get her appetites satisfied by a woman who went from whorehouse to school marm by necessity after the mine blew. If you're not all in by now, something is wrong with you.

Scoot McNairy, so great in Halt and Catch Fire, is Bill McNue, the sheriff of La Belle, but all the women know he's a coward. He's also going blind, so luckily there's flashy-with-a-gun-he-doesn't-get-to-use-much deputy Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), adding a little extra protection (but if you haven't figured out that Alice and Mary Agnes don't need much protection, you're not getting the Godless vibe). That said, Godless is a whole lot more than a feminist Western, because any single-note focus would probably bore Frank, whose authorial touch in all facets of the series makes it his baby to raise among the tumbleweeds, and he's not going to mess that up.

Sam Waterston plays Marshall John Cook, who has been on Griffin's trail for some time, mopping up the carnage that Griffin leaves behind. Waterston is a lot of fun to watch, from the hoppity-hop way he rides his horse to how that trademark Waterston vocal delivery sands some of the Clint Eastwood out of the cliche at hand.

In Godless, there's a lot of anticipation for what's to come. You want to hear Daniels and Waterston have a chat. You want McNairy's character to find salvation from his cowardice. You want Dockery and Wever to shoot the hell out of anything that moves. But Frank makes the slowish getting there the bigger point; he understands that not all Westerns are made alike.

Cast: Jeff Daniels, Jack O'Connell, Michelle Dockery, Merritt Wever, Scoot McNairy, Sam Waterston, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jeremy Bobb, Samuel Marty, Kim Coates

Created, written and directed by Scott Frank

Premieres on Netflix on Nov. 22.

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