Though Logan remains the best X-Men movie by a country mile, there is a blatant desperation in both Scott Frank‘s script and James Mangold‘s direction, centered specifically on the film’s pedigree. Though their film stands on its own merits, at once riveting and emotionally devastating, Mangold and Frank strained to reiterate through dialogue, music, and visual gags that Logan belonged to the great tradition of Hollywood Westerns. This was obvious within the first 30 minutes of the film but the references continued on and became increasingly heavy-handed as the film went on, reaching an earnest climax when X-23 is seen entranced by Shane during a stop-off in a Las Vegas hotel suite.
To this point, it makes sense that Frank’s first limited series for Netflix would be a deep-dive into the Western genre. Godless, which runs six episodes at some 70 minutes a pop, is another amalgamation of cowboy classics and legends of lawmen, painted on a far more epic landscape of murder, theft, and poverty than Logan received. Set largely in the erstwhile mining town of La Belle, New Mexico, the series posits Jack O’Connell‘s Roy Goode as yet another Shane type, a miraculous gunslinger with a talent for training horses and an agreeable moral compass. After making off with the loot his villainous mentor, Griffin (Jeff Daniels), took from an explosive train robbery, Goode finds himself the guest of Michelle Dockery‘s Alice Fletcher, the owner of a horse ranch outside of La Belle, who shoots him on sight and then begins to nurse him back to health.
Frank has clearly learned something from Game of Thrones, namely that a sprawling narrative often makes up for a noticeable lack of ideas. As Goode and Fletcher begin to get to know each other, La Belle’s main street is taking bids from mining companies looking to make a new fortune after an eruptive blast of fire in the mines killed all but a handful of men in the town. Negotiations are led by Mary Agnes, played by the incomparable Merritt Wever, but her belief that the La Belle mines should remain in the hands of the largely female populace is not shared by her neighbors, who happily buy into the notion that unknown men are not only needed but deserve to wield financial and social power in their town. Mary’s widowed brother, Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), is also trying to retain La Belle’s independence but his failing eyesight proves to be an issue in keeping up his role as a no-bull lawman. As Frank’s writing underlines, the power of men in the world of Godless is tied to their ability to wield a gun, shoot straight, and assert dominance, a talent McNue is losing day by day.
This is less of an issue for Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston), who comes galloping into La Belle after witnessing the aftermath of Griffin’s face-off with Goode. The first episode opens with Cook and his men coming upon the remnants of the town where Griffin lost his arm to Goode’s pistol, witnessing atrocities ranging from hung children to bodies burnt down to black skeleton and ash. As with Logan, Frank knows how to use brutality to get his point across but he thankfully never overplays his hand or feels the need to stress the suffering of Griffin’s victims. His focus is less on Griffin’s evil in conflict with Goode, McNue, and Cook’s apparent goodness than the empty power of myths and stories to tell a false narrative that’s easy to sell to the right audience. Even Cook, with his mighty mustache and anecdotes about not wasting good whiskey, is not exactly the ironclad John Wayne type that he initially appears to be, a fact teased by the series’ opening shot of Cook and his men barely visible in a raging dust storm.
By extension, Godless is also about the myth of America as the almighty’s gift to mankind specifically. Griffin ensconces himself in the language of the Bible and is quick to excuse his bloodlust in the name of some wildly confused sense of holy justice when it’s clear he’s just an old man scared of his impending death, which he often says is foretold in his mind. He even goes as far as to interrupt a church service to threaten an entire township from the pastor’s stage, striding in atop his horse. The clear implication is that the words of God are most often used to imply the seriousness of men and their threats toward those they see as inferior, whether they be all women or a widespread and weak brand of males. The faith men like Griffin, as well as the mining company men who pray on the lonely, exhausted, and poor women of La Belle, profess and demand is a little more than a clever grift to hide monstrous and greedy intentions, which seem to be lurking under the surface of all but a few in Frank’s New Mexico.
The idea that Christianity was built as a way for men to assert dominance of the world is a powerful one, but Frank only goes so far in exploring its implications on the foundation of American society and legend. It doesn’t help that it’s the sole refreshing idea that he brings up, beyond reiterating the oft-forgotten importance of women in the building of this country. For all its thematic flirtations, Godless is first and foremost an entertainment, awash in familiar backstories, thrilling set-pieces, romance, and scenes of horror or empowerment that don’t speak to any reflective concepts outside of those needed to keep the plot running smoothly.
Nevertheless, if Godless is indeed just an entertainment, it’s a very good one. The cast, which also includes Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kayli Carter, Jeremy Bobb, Erik LaRay Harvey, and Tess Frazer, brings considerable charisma, wit, and emotional depth to the material, elevating even the most rote monologues about a world without mercy to something moving and involving. Even more so, the entire series is shot by DP Steven Meizler, who had a breakout year in 2016 when he shot the entirety of the brilliant first season of The Girlfriend Experience and cut his teeth under the likes of Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh, the latter of whom serves as an executive producer here. Working with Frank, Meizler intimates the unknowable truth of the wild West by consistently utilizing natural light that barely gives you sight in the darkness, while also returning to gray skies and the aforementioned storms that make it impossible to know who or what is coming your way.
For his part, Frank writes and directs with a naturalness and efficiency that is far more convincing than the likes of revisionist Western directors like Kevin Costner (Open Range) or Mangold (3:10 to Yuma). His writing touches on a number of nuances of society in the age of Wyatt Earp and as a director, he builds and sustains tension with masterful pacing, even as he rarely ventures outside his comfort zones in either respect. Indeed, the only major issue with Godless as a thoughtful and engaging entertainment is that you’re constantly aware that it could have been so much more than that.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Godless arrives in full on Netflix starting November 22nd.