Netflix’s Western series Godless from Scott Frank is gorgeous, littered with tremendous performances, and makes a strong case for being a seven-hour movie.
It is a common refrain from writers, directors, and producers working in television that what they’re delivering isn’t really a TV show in the typical sense, but is instead a much longer movie, parceled out over a number of weeks or, in the case of Netflix or Amazon’s all-at-once method, a block of content intended to be consumed at the viewer’s own pace. The assertion is one that often drives those who cover television regularly a little batty, as the merits of TV are such that attempts to seemingly elevate and cursorily repackage a product as something else is a disservice to the medium. So what, then, is to be done with something like Scott Frank’s magnificent new Western series Godless, which, at just about seven hours in length, makes one of the most compelling cases yet that blurring the lines between film and television can work to the favor of both mediums.
Teaming with executive producer Steven Soderbergh, Frank, whose already impressive list of writing credits include Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report, The Wolverine, Logan, and directing the criminally underrated A Walk Among the Tombstones, wrote and directed all seven episodes of Godless. The result is a particular vision filtered through a single lens that offers a welcome consistency in style and tone, without which the series might not have succeeded to the degree that it does. Shepherding the Western from start to finish allows Frank the time he needs to bring to life a vibrant and lived-in world set mostly around late 19th century mining town of La Belle, New Mexico, and to tell a story brimming with character flourishes and grace notes that makes use of an superb cast that’s about as close to being an embarrassment of riches as any ensemble in recent memory.
Godless offers a number of standout roles from Michelle Dockery as rancher Alice Fletcher, Merritt Wever as hardened widower Mary Agnes, Jack O’Connell as outlaw Roy Goode, and Jeff Daniels, in a metamorphic role as the menacing killer Frank Griffin. The series also features terrific turns from Scoot McNairy, Sam Waterston, Jeremy Bobb, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, all of whom, in one way or another, breathe life into the isolated La Belle, a town comprised mainly of women still reeling from a tragic mining accident that claimed the lives of nearly all the town’s men. Following Roy’s bloodstained arrival at Alice’s ranch on the outskirts of La Belle one night, the quiet mining town finds itself on a collision course with Frank and his murderous band of criminals.
Originally written as a three-hour feature film over a decade ago, Frank pitched it as a television series at Soderbergh’s suggestion, expanding the screenplay to seven-episodes, which routinely run well over the 60-minute mark and yet never seem overlong or languorous; you’d be hard-pressed to not want to spend more time in this place and with these characters.
As far as the characters are concerned, Daniels makes Frank into a quietly frightening presence whose band of marauders and their crimes at times evoke aspects of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The difference being, Daniels seems as intent on minimizing Frank’s outward villainy as the character is. Soft spoken, taken with wearing a preacher’s collar, and prone to reassuring others that he’s seen his own death, Frank spends much of his time spanning miles between towns and victims searching for Roy, his surrogate son and protégé who rejected and betrayed him by developing a conscience. Perhaps because of the size of the cast and the seven-episode run, Daniels’ presence seems more limited than the others, but that’s not a detriment to the series. Scott Frank maximizes every minute Frank is on screen, cutting between the present and flashbacks both recent and in the distant past to illustrate the depth of his relationship with Roy, while leaving the cause of its dissolution, which vexes and impels Frank right up until the very end, something to be conveyed by Roy’s actions once he’s taken in with the widow fletcher and her half-native son Truckee (Samuel Marty).
As good as O’Connell is as Roy, and as much as the show invests in his redemption and eventual clash with Frank, Michelle Dockery and Merritt Wever bring Godless to life. Outsiders both, they find themselves at odds with the women of La Belle in different ways. Following the mining accident, the town is prey to all sorts of men, criminal and capitalist alike. Most of the women hope for a return to normalcy and are eager to entice more men to refill the ranks of La Belle, even if it means striking an unfair deal with a mining company. As the town’s residents busy themselves with the construction of a new church, or entertaining and attending to the needs of the mining company’s private security force headed up by a wicked Kim Coates, Mary, who has taken to wearing her late husband’s clothes and proving herself as a proficient gunslinger (much to the chagrin of Brodie-Sangster’s Deputy Whitey Winn), seems the only one intent on moving forward, to seek progress, instead of regressing to an approximation of what once was.
That sense of progression fuels Godless through its seven hours, largely from the perspectives of Alice, Roy, Frank, and Mary, but it’s the smaller details and notes of humanity contained therein and demonstrated by others in the ensemble that makes the expansion of Frank’s story so rich. Developing a single screenplay into seven hours of content means Frank had some gaps to fill, which affords the series time to repaint the picture of Scoot McNairy’s Sheriff Bill McNue as a man who is “Harder than he lets on,” especially after being labeled a coward and whose tendency for tripping over what’s right in front of him initially positions him as a bit of a bumbling fool with a schoolboy crush on Dockery’s Alice.
There are other moments as well, like a German woman with a propensity to wander La Belle in the nude, and Whitey’s romantic overtures with Louise (Jessica Sula) a young woman from a town comprised of Buffalo Soldier. Others, like Roy teaching Truckee about where to ride his horse, while patiently answering to the boy’s reluctance and timorous nature not only add weight and texture to the characters, they counterbalance the terrible cost of violence that often occurs with little to no warning.
Godless is gorgeous to look at, too. Frank and his cinematographer Steven Meizler present sweeping vistas, a spectacular train wreck, and some sharp shootouts the likes of which any feature film would proud to have. The result is an endlessly watchable limited series that is a magnificent addition to the Western genre and one of the best and most surprising offerings from Netflix in recent memory.
Godless is available in its entirety on Netflix.
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