Godless is a western TV show created, written & directed by Scott Frank, with cinematography by Steven Meizler which was edited by Michelle Tesoro.
It is a 7 part mini-series which is intriguing from the outset. It is wonderfully shot, very well acted, methodically paced and produces a different slant to the genre while still bearing many of the clichés it is known for. Many of the episodes are over an hour long, isn’t afraid to build relationships as well as bring out excellent performances from the cast.
Godless is available to watch on Netflix and was released in 2017. For those interested in the genre, Jacob Gurney’s list of modern westerns is a good place to start.
THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.
Story – Methodical & Intriguing
From the beginning, “An Incident at Creede”, expertly draws out main characters motivations, where they are and what really drives them. Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his gang have been plaguing the land, taking what they can for quite some time. There comes a point where they rob a train. One of the group, the aptly named Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) decides he’s had enough. He goes rogue and escapes with the money. To say Frank was not best pleased would be an understatement.
Roy ends up at a farmstead trying to recover where he (and we) meets the ladies of La Belle, New Mexico. The town is almost entirely devoid of any men after a mining accident years before.
While Frank’s pursuit of Roy and the money are the initial draw of the story, the main motivation is who are the women who are in charge of La Belle? What happened to all the men? How do they survive on their own? There are also well thought out personal intrigues going on; the sheriff, Bill McNue’s physical troubles; Whitey Winn, his over eager deputy’s lack of experience and personal relationships. Speaking of relationships, Bill’s sister, Mary Agnes, a widow, decides she likes the local ex-prostitute turned schoolteacher, Callie Dunn. Then there’s Roy running into Alice Fletcher, who is not a local citizen and doesn’t get on with the town.
Characters & Performances – Predictable but Nuanced & Empathetic
I mentioned the characters in the story section because they make the series what it is. With the longer format, they are all given time to breathe and develop. And it makes it extremely enjoyable to watch. Of the major players, I naturally would give a shoutout to Jeff Daniels. He is well known for being a comedy actor but has done many serious roles over the years. Here, he steals every scene, deciding to play it calm, patient, ruthless. You would not mess with this man. It is the disquiet, steely determination, coupled with Daniel’s inherent presence and charm as an actor, that he was great to watch.
The writing for his character could be a little rote. There is one particular line which he repeats constantly. However, the further the story developed, the more we saw how twisted but charismatic he had become to lead this group. And take in others. There is also one particular scene however, that does show his humanity and faith at odds to his ruthlessness. That, in the right circumstances, he would treat people with the proper respect. For an evil man, he was well written. Jeff Daniels won an Emmy for his performance on “An Incident at Creede” & rightly so.
Unfortunately, his group of men get next to no development. This makes sense in deciding to use the screentime for the ensemble cast. Choosing to focus on this group could have been a risky move. They’re all crooked, murderous thieves and doing so might have made them empathetic, pulling the focus away from Daniels.
The Ladies of La Belle
Thomas Brodie-Sangster (of Maze Runner fame), Scoot McNairy and even Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) are all very good. However, the standouts have got to be the women. Michelle Dockery and especially Merritt Weaver carry this show – Weaver won a Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Supporting Role on the episode, “The Ladies of La Belle”. The plight shown about La Belle and how others try to exploit the town show an excellent point of view; how strong these women are.
THIS is essentially the main story, with Merritt Weaver being the focal point. Being the sheriff’s sister, she isn’t afraid to say her piece and can back it up with action. When scrupulous men try and manipulate the women out of what is left of the town, she is the one who gets the others to stand up for themselves.
She has plenty of development with a few others, where the show flexes it’s other strengths – social issues. Already having strong women was interesting, here Weaver’s character Mary Agnes also decides she likes the local ex-prostitute now teacher, Callie Dunn. The show tastefully shows their relationship and it’s effect within the town. Mary Agnes is shown to be very strong outwardly but could be emotionally vulnerable all the same.
Same could be said for the towns’ Deputy Whitey Winn and his affection for Louise Hobbs, who is a black lady from Blackdom, the small outpost nearby. He is cocky and a wiseass, but is much more serious around Louise because he likes her.
While there is plenty of sinister intent and violence present when needed, Godless was actually best when showing off the characters personalities when confronted with their relationships, societal problems and personal challenges.
Roy’s relationship with Alice Fletcher was well drawn out, also showing his yin to Griffin’s yang on how morally good his is for a bad person. This is particularly well done with flashback scenes showing how he was raised along with his brother. Michelle Dockery was also very good. However, with her character on the outside of La Belle, I felt there was more focus on Roy Goode, and his influence on her son.
Even smaller roles for the likes of Sam Waterston’s US Marshal on Griffin’s trail or Jeremy Bobb’s A.T. Grigg, a reporter obsessed with information on the gang, are given enough time to bring life into their characters and enhance the story.
Cinematography – Absolutely Beautiful
The camerawork on this series was noticeable straight away. “An Incident at Creede” shows how Waterston’s Marshall John Cook comes across a bloodbath by using wide shots. This shows off the scenery, as well as the carnage. There was a scene in middle of a shootout where a man on horse rides through the saloon house to the top floor. Frank Griffin, who is overconfident in his philosophy, is a focal point in the shooting, which I appreciated for narrative reasons.
Their locations looked in the right places, the sets were suitably realistic. The weaponry and clothing look authentic. Other standout moments were Sherrif McNue’s encounter with Griffins’ gang along a creek, the gang come into view around the corner. Another was US Marshal John Cook going into a bar looking for information for the camera to settle in front of him to see what’s behind.
Not to ruin it, but a shoutout is needed for the FX team on their work for a specific scene in episode One. It was very well done, as was the prop work for the opening scene when Marshall Cook turns up to survey the damage.
Sound & Music
The music was nice and rustic but did call for bombast when the time was right. Plenty of the show just relied on ambient and subtle music when in certain conversations. Overall I really enjoyed it. Subtle, but there were different themes for each of the relationships in the story. Have to have a big shout out for the main title which I enjoyed and the Primetime Emmy Awards Academy agreed. Carlos Rafael Rivera came out on top for this theme.
Editing & Pacing – Very Good & Done When Ready
It bears repeating that the showrunners had the confidence to make longer episodes. It allowed the actors to inhabit the roles meant that scenes were finished when they decided we had seen enough. There was enough time split between Alice Fletcher and Roy Goode. Between Frank and his gang. Between Mary Agnes and Callie Dunn’s relationship. The sheriff Bill McNue and his personal struggles as well as professional pride. The longer format suited the story and the number of episodes produced is about right.