Jeremy Bobb, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jessica Sula, Jack O’Connell, Jeff Daniels, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able, Sam Waterston
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It’s been almost a decade since the seminal Western text of this century, David Milch’s Deadwood, concluded its all too short lifespan on HBO. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) scrubbed the dark blood stain out of the wooden floors in his office and left the audience with a sentiment that encompassed the pathos of the series. “What do you want me to do, tell you something pretty?” That final line was the final ugly dagger that extinguished Milch’s masterful observation about the mechanics of modern civilisation. This week enduring fans had cause to celebrate; Milch and Co. are mere months away from production rolling on a standalone Deadwood film.
But it’s a distinct pleasure to report that streaming on Netflix right now is a series that finally satiates your desire to be taken back to the west and deep into the muck of human impulses.
Godless, unlike Deadwood, isn’t concerned with nursing a singular unincorporated town into the burgeoning Union. Writer/director Scott Frank takes us into New Mexico and the desolate and disconnected frontier makes monsters out of the hypocritical and greedy patriarchy.
Frank is a long-time screenwriter of films such as Minority Report and Logan and novelist (Shaker, a crime mystery, was released in 2016). Godless is Frank’s cinematic novel, that wears the techniques of his former collaborators on its sleeve. The world feels saturated like Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, approaches action like a soldier tearing up a beach in Saving Private Ryan and contains a chorus of world weary and battle-scarred characters like James Mangold’s Logan.
Frank explained in a recent interview with NPR that “any self-respecting screenwriter at some point has to give [writing a western] a crack. And I wanted to do something different that I hadn’t seen before. And that’s tricky because there have been so many westerns…”
When his long-term researcher Mimi Munson drew his attention to “several towns in New Mexico where all of the men died in an accident in a single afternoon stranding the women in these places. And sometimes the women would leave and move on. And sometimes they would stick around and try and make a go of it. And I thought, wow. What a great starting point.”
Godless, a limited series by design, finds a way to use the pockets of the underrepresented crawl westward across the American continent to reflect the unchecked turmoil. Godless sets its scene in the 1880s in a newly formed union. Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) seeks out his former ‘favourite’ turned defector Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell). The town of La Belle, a town struck by a mining accident that resulted in the sudden death of nearly all of the town’s men, is the fragile flower in this totally hostile environment that has remained unplucked. This hint of beauty and vulnerability is a time bomb that you know must go off.
In the opening moments of the series, through a blinding haze of dust, Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston) and a posse of men come upon the town of Creede. The town is hauntingly quiet, bodies litter the streets and sprayed across the flats like the remains of a game corpse is the tangled metal skeleton of a derailed train. Cutting through the dust is a melancholy ditty, a lone female survivor hovers over the corpse of her lover. Strung from the highest railway pole is a young lad, swaying in the breeze like rotting fruit on a poisoned tree. The senseless carnage of outlaw Frank Griffin’s (Jeff Daniels) party of thieves is enough to bring Marshal Cook to his knees.
Daniels’ Griffin is a man with twisted psychopathic piety. He’s a bundle of strange mysticism, predicting that he’s seen his death and casually reassures those he interacts with that he’s seen what’s to come and that any ‘threats’ need not be heeded. He’s, at times, calculating and conducting his personal mercenary force that swarms the landscape. Small towns and their underrepresented populace provide little resistance to their domination. However, the cracks have begun to emerge in the impervious myth that he’s conjured for himself. In the first episode we see Griffin undergo emergency amputation surgery that takes away his arm. In a gesture of pure denial, he carries his detached limb with him long after the surgery. The sum of the parts for Griffin must represent the whole.
It’s highly likely that you’ll love the show because of how it manipulates Western archetypes to make every character an agonisingly conflicted being. Throughout the series the viewer will wrestle with finding Griffin deplorable, disgusting and yet, finding a strange kinship with the neglected orphans of heinous acts. While we view Roy’s entry into Griffin’s band of lost boys we can imagine that this is a regular recruitment drive tied intrinsically to his beliefs and fashions a portal to his soul. His scriptures and life advice ring true in the context of this world. (Most episodes contain flashbacks where Griffin is providing guidance and advice about life, morality and being a ‘good’ citizen of the world.) While you’re viewing, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the same hypocritical notions of members of an inherently corrupt and morally bankrupt institution like the Catholic Church while still being able to move you with the beauty of scriptures and visions of belief. Daniels’ manner as Griffin is often one of softness; he considers himself a teacher. The drought of real representatives of God paves way for this false prophet.
Driving Griffin’s ferocity and malice is the slight of his formidable ward, turned hardened killer Roy Goode (O’Connell). Roy rides away from the fracas with his former crew, gut shot toward a likely death when he comes upon the ranch of one Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery). This is Dockery about as far away from Downton Abbey as possible. She’s a stoic lioness, more than willing to shoot first and ask questions later. In the first exchange with Roy, riding up to her ranch on the outskirts of La Belle in the dead of night, he’s bewildered and unable to respond. She does not hesitate and fires a warning shot that grazes his neck and throws him out of his saddle and onto the ground. Alice is the widower of a Native American man, eking out a modest existence with her son Truckee (Samuel Marty) and mother in law played by Dances with Wolves’ Tantoo Cardinal. They begin nurturing Roy back to health and as he regains strength he begins to reveal who he is in the actions that he’s able to undertake. One reflective shot, taking the head off a rattle snake about to take a swipe at a toddler hits the seismograph and people begin to feel that he’s not who he claims to be.
O’Connell plays a haunted Roy, running away from the killer he’s become in the presence of Griffin; the greater the likelihood of Griffin’s descent on La Belle, the more that the ‘old’ Roy begins to emerge. Roy decides that instead of potentially endangering Alice and family with his presence, he’ll hand himself over to La Belle Sherriff Scoot McNairy’s Bill McNue.
McNue, a widower and father of two, is slowly being crippled by an encroaching blindness. In this vulnerable town, their lone law man (the Sherriff’s Deputy Whitey is still a gangly teen) seems more like a bumbling hazard than a town saviour. McNairy is a terrific and diverse character actor. He’s got such a command of his posture and gait, and conveys inner turmoil with his dark eyes.
La Belle is the heart of the show. It’s here that we set the scene for some of the most fascinating explorations in the genre. In an instant, a mining accident decimates the male population, stranding an almost exclusively female community to find their own way. The stand outs are Merritt Wever’s Mary Agnes – sister to Sherriff McNue (McNairy) – and Tess Frazer’s Callie Dunne; they are Godless’ answer to Deadwood’s Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens). Mary Agnes and Callie feel like the only characters in the town that are relieved in the wake of the accident. For Mary Agnes it’s about being able to assert, to step out of the dainty frontier homemaker garb and to assume a role in the town’s future that her gender had denied. Wever’s performance alongside Callie is like an island of tenderness in this harsh world. Her self-consciousness informs the way that she occupies space in an interaction, but she’s extremely forthright. While external mining interests hold the women over a barrel for the opportunity to kick-start works in the mine, it is Mary Agnes that attempts to reassert their authority. For Callie, her thriving business as a town whore dried up instantly in the wake of the accident. She then became free to reclaim her body for pleasure instead of commerce. There’s electricity between Mary Agnes and Callie that’s hiding in plain sight amongst their intuitive harem.
Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s Whitey Winn is the cocky teenager hoping to assume the position of defender to the town. Whitey takes interest in a young African American girl living in an adjoining community, Louise Hobbs (Jessica Sula). Her community is segregated, by choice, assembled by a formidable and infamous civil war unit. In the post war period they’ve made the decision to remain separate from La Belle and white society proper, in order to live their lives in peace.
Frank wants us to experience the poise of the West. Cinematographer Steven Meizler, a journeyman camera operator working on a swathe of films (Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Che) defines the aesthetic of Godless by placing the audience in the zone to experience the action. On Alice’s ranch we get inside the wooden ring to break horses and the over the shoulder style that defined Ryan and was adopted wholesale in the video game genre. It’s a great experiential posture and director/writer Frank allows each scenario to breathe. The scope of the show allows you to experience the graft of the day to day. Frank and Meizler also show the devastation of the gun. Metal minces human targets and each wound lingers for a suitable recovery time.
At the conclusion of Godless there’s a deep satisfaction. It’s an epic and singular Western film that was granted the permission to run as long as a TV show and like all great Westerns, reflects contemporary times. Frank is aware that Godless and its characters are not wholly unfamiliar to the audience, but is innately cognisant of the enduring tragedy and relevance of the American frontier. Slimy pulp journalists exaggerate to save their skin. Corporate interests increasingly capitalise on the disenfranchised and easily exploitable. Absent patriarchal structures provide little comfort in death. The ghosts of displaced Native American Nations pushed to the fringe of the emerging society echo in the characters consciousness.