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Netflix’s latest series Godless puts a modern edge on the muscular and sturdy Westerns of John Ford. Its pilot hits genre beats viewers have seen countless times before: horse whisperers, native American mysticism, poisonous snakes, train robberies. Yet, it adds a 21st century flavour. The period decor is richer, the setting feels dangerous and the violence is more brutal.
Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell – Skins, 71’) and his actions put the story in motion. The young gun slinger steals a large bounty from his sadistic but strangely religious father-figure Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), the leader of a gang pillaging and murdering whole mining towns. In the ensuing chaos both men are shot. As Frank’s arm is amputated, Roy stumbles onto the farm of Alice (Michele Dockery – Good Behaviour), a two-time widowed horse rancher. After initially shooting Roy for trespassing, she begins to mend him back to health.
Alice lives on the outskirts of La Belle, a town where nearly all the men died in a mining accident. With only the protection of a world-weary sheriff (Scoot McNairy) and an aging marshal (Sam Waterston), a fear begins to grow that Frank may target La Belle as he searches for his enemy.
Written and directed by the supremely underrated Scott Frank (screenwriter behind Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Logan, and the director of pulp gems The Lookout and A Walk Among the Tombstones), the seven-part limited series feels incredibly cinematic. The desert vistas look vast and expansive. The action spectacle is effortlessly staged. Meanwhile, series cinematographer Steven Meizer (who worked on executive producer Steven Soderbergh’s other series The Girlfriend Experience) brings a unique touch to proceedings. The camera often tracks behind characters or shoots them from below or above from disorienting angles, not only creating an enhanced atmosphere, but a more realistic tone. This isn’t the idealised look of the West from classic Hollywood, the viewer feels as immersed in the dirt, disease and mud as the characters.
It’s interesting Soderbergh is an executive producer as there is a sense the director’s previous foray into television The Knick may have been an influence on Godless. The emphasis on injury – Roy having gun powder ignited on his bullet wound as a means to cauterise, Jeff Daniels’ character’s arm having to be hacked off – perhaps suggest Scott Frank was taking cues from the horror of ye old medicine depicted in Soderbergh’s hospital set drama.
In the seventy-minute pilot, there were flaws. The moment where Roy shares a spiritual connection with one of Alice’s horses felt heavy-handed and jarred with the realistic depiction of the West. Also, coming so soon after The Revenant and Wind River, it feels weird that white characters in popular culture have become the representations of Native American suffering – as opposed to Native Americans. Here, its Michelle Dockery’s white Alice whose Indian husband was left for dead by La Belle townspeople. Meanwhile, some of the latter blame the widow for the town’s mining accident, claiming she used witchery to seek revenge. Despite typically excellent work by Dockery and Alice being a strong female character, it’s a strange choice not to write the character as Native American if one is seeking to examine that race’s plight.
However, Scott Frank’s dialogue is terrific: “You don’t seem much like a desperado. More like just desperate,” and the cast is uniformly great. Jeff Daniels knows how to command a room, particularly when atop of horse entering a church to deliver a threat to the parishioners with the stirring cadence of a preacher. Plus, the closing moments nicely set the fuse for what appears to be an inevitable showdown between the women of La Belle and Griffin’s gang. I will be tuning in to see it.