Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Godless (Netflix, 2017)

A proper Western

 

Back in 2017 when it came out, I reviewed a Netflix Western, Godless, on my old blog, and was complimentary about it. I’ve just watched the seven-part series again and I must say it’s gone even farther up in my estimation. It’s still available on Netflix (at least here in France where I live) and if you are a subscriber and haven’t seen it yet, I recommend it.

 

 

It’s a ‘proper’ Western, set in Colorado and New Mexico in the 1880s, and it opens with an aged US marshal with a small posse riding in on the aftermath of a truly terrible massacre in Creede. A small child hanged from a telegraph pole brings the old lawman to his knees. We will at length discover the author of this foul deed, outlaw chief, the graybeard Frank Griffin, superbly played by Jeff Daniels. The role of the marshal, grizzled and mustached in a Sam Elliott kind of way, is also brilliantly handled by Sam Waterston. In fact all the acting is noticeably good.

 

The old marshal

 

We don’t get to know this right away, of course because in that modern (or is it post-modern, I never really know) way of motion pictures these days the facts are dealt out parsimoniously, bit by bit. That’s half the fun, I suppose, piecing the crumbs of info together to form, well, I’m not quite sure what assembled crumbs would form so I think I’ll abandon this metaphor.

 

Our hero is Goode

 

The story, we eventually learn, concerns Roy Goode (once again well played, by Jack O’Connell), an adopted son of Griffin who has deserted the band, taking ill-gotten loot with him, upon which the man who considers himself his father swears to wreak vengeance on the young man of a particularly painful and terminal kind. Goode fetches up, wounded in the throat, on a ranch whose rather trigger-happy owner, Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery: yup, very good) proceeds to wound him again, for not speaking, which is a bit harsh.

 

Tough rancher woman

 

But at least she then has the decency to heal him, with the aid of her Paiute mother-in-law, played by the actor who might take the cake as the best of the whole cast, Tantoo Cardinal, whom you may well remember from Dances with Wolves (and who is also in another good Netflix show, Frontier). Ms Cardinal has little to say, and most of that with subtitles, but she is all the more powerful for it. It’s a magnificent performance.

 

Star of the show

 

I also liked Alice’s son, well more than half Paiute himself, Truckee (Samuel Marty), an uncertain teenager who gradually comes to see Goode as a father figure. The alternating bolshieness and tentativeness is very well done, though I suppose as a teenage boy he was pretty well qualified for that…

 

Another excellent actor

 

There are many other characters, of course, but the nub of the plot is that, and how the characters will face the inevitable showdown as Griffin and his murderous thugs descend on the town of La Belle to wreak their bloody revenge.

 

La Belle is a mining town but nearly all the men have perished in a pit accident (there is a curious idyllic scene of marital and urban bliss as the miners go off to work wreathed in smiles and bathing in the love of their families, never to return). The result is a very female community, and the sisters sure are doing it for themselves. Thus it is a very female, not to say feminist Western. There are also lesbian affairs that teeter on the brink of, but probably do not fall over into salaciousness.

 

Chief among the townswomen is a veritable Western Amazon, Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), the butch sister of the sheriff. She effectively takes over as town boss while her brother is away hunting the outlaws. She comes across as a hostile and dismissive person with a deep sadness underneath but I guess in a community like that it’s not surprising. Once again, the part is very well handled by the actor.

 

The best gun in town

 

This sheriff, her brother Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) is losing his sight, not an ideal situation for a man to be in who depends on his firearm, though rather implausibly all is made well when he purchases some spectacles from a casual encounter with a passer-by for 25 cents and these eyeglasses miraculously cure both long- and short-sightedness, throwing everything into crystal-clear focus, even when one the lenses, Piggy-like, is cracked. Once the US marshal is out of the picture, and he regrettably is, this humble town lawman will bear the responsibility for bringing the evil Griffin and his gang to justice. Luckily he will be helped by his manly sis, by Roy Goode and Alice, and by sundry other allies. It turns out that the majority of them can shoot durned well.

 

The sheriff is going blind

 

While the sheriff is away, a mining company, eying up the possibilities, puts in its own men as the law and to my delight they are led by Butler, or at least that is how I think of him. Butler (Kim Coates) is the especially bad badman in Open Range, you will doubtless recall, and he does something similar here. He is called Logan here but I’m sure it’s Butler. Probably he changed his name when he moved on to the Open Range town. He’s splendid. Of course, corporate greed and ruthlessness are standard elements of the Western, almost a cliché, but it’s very well done here. Naturally, when Griffin and his band descend on La Belle, ‘Sheriff’ Logan is long gone – purportedly going for more men but in reality going back to larceny.

 

Butler is Logan this time

 

In the sheriff’s absence the town is in the hands of the skinny, gauche, naïve deputy, the stripling Whitey (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, very good) who fancies himself as a gun-twirling quick-draw artist and who, though a stranger to soap and water, has fallen for a girl in the local African-American community of Blackdom.

 

Gauche deputy

 

I also liked the scurrilous newspaperman AT Grigg (Jeremy Bobb), happily exaggerating, embroidering or even plain inventing the ‘facts’ for his rag.

 

Editor of rag

 

Actually, other Westerns than Open Range are ‘quoted’ too, or at least I don’t think it’s too fanciful to say so. We get, for example, a very Django-like scene as a coffin is hauled into a graveyard; there’s an up-over-the-roof shot revealing not a town but graves, reminiscent of DP Tonino Delli Colli’s for Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West; there’s a The Searchers-like moment as Roy Goode rides down a snowy hillside like John Wayne; there’s even a John Ford doorway. The fact that you aren’t certain if you are making it up shows the subtlety of the references but then you think, no, I’m sure, that’s a Django ref alright. I picked these quotations up on second viewing, and the show repays a re-watch.

 

As the title suggests, the film has a secular, almost anti-clerical tinge to it. Outlaw chief Griffin is supposedly a preacher (though if ever formally ordained as such is highly unlikely) and his purple shirt gives him an episcopal appearance but he is as far from a peace-loving Christian as you could possibly get. In one scene he rides his horse into the church, while singing Nearer My God to Thee and then sermonizes the congregation. He makes clear that he himself is the nearest thing to God in this country, and he warns the congregation solemnly: anyone who protects Roy Goode will suffer as Jesus did. He is one of those men who has unilaterally assigned to himself godlike powers, in the most arrogant and bullying way possible.

 

Seriously creepy preacher

 

The church is being built by the women, in pants or with their skirts hitched up, and on the one hand this is a nod to the Western trope of the women being the civilizing element of these communities, being churchgoers and schoolma’ams and favoring temperance and so on, while the men are out gunslinging, cattle droving or ridin’ the range. But on the other hand the church remains an unfinished skeleton and seems an empty hope. A pastor is promised but he has apparently strayed off the straight and narrow on the way there and they must shift for themselves. When finally he does arrive, too late, at the funerals of those fallen in the bloodbath, he spouts platitudes. Certainly Mary Agnes gives him short shrift, though you can see some of the more elderly and/or gullible women nodding hopefully at the clergyman’s triteness.

 

 

It’s all very well done, and full marks to writer/director Scott Frank and producer Steven Soderbergh. Mr Frank apparently worked on the screenplays of Minority Report and The Wolverine, not pictures I have seen (they aren’t Westerns) though they are said to be good. Although Godless is his only Western, he clearly understands (and, if the references are true, loves) the genre.

 

Scott did a fine job

 

Slowness of plot development and pacing is almost a virtue in this picture. Only outfits like Netflix, HBO and the like can do that now. Whereas in the old days big-screen features gave us scope and grandeur while small TV screens churned out low-budget studio-set Westerns, now the tables are turned and it’s TV that provides us with the large-scale, even epic pictures, and many of us have big flat-screen TVs to watch them on.

 

The showdown, with its long build-up, is pretty classic and there’s a Magnificent Seven vibe as the place prepares for the coming onslaught, with Griffin cast as the Calvera figure – only scarier.

 

Classic Western image

 

Visually, the picture is outstanding. Steven Meizler was the cinematographer. He had also worked on Minority Report, I read, though again this is his only Western. But he captures the magic of the New Mexico locations. It is true, of course, that the American Southwest is the most beautiful part of the world and New Mexico is the most beautiful part of the Southwest (I just need to check out a couple of other places in Asia and Europe but I’m pretty sure I’m right), and with that wonderful pink light even I can take good photographs there but Mr Meizler’s photography is particularly and noticeably fine.

 

I even liked the ending. We who have seen Yuma, The Tin Star, Hondo, and any number of other Westerns, confidently expect the widow, the young son and the newcomer gunman to bond, form a family unit and set off for California to start a new life, in the final shot. They don’t.

 

I would go so far as to say that Godless is the very model of what a contemporary TV Western should be, combining familiar tropes with new ideas, making an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable watch.

 

22 Responses

  1. Jeff, a good write-up of GODLESS(filmed 2016-17, released 2017). I’ve never seen this new Western Series. Usually, I’m disappointed in the newer so-called revisionist Westerns. I might view GODLESS someday, but I’m in no hurry.

    I would rather view the upcoming Blu-ray release of FORT BOWIE(1956), which is probably the first Lesley Selander Western Movie released on Blu-ray. I rather like this Selander Western.

    I guess I’ll have to get used to your new format. I wish you had a box where I could type in the name of a movie and it would come up. On your old site you had an alphabetical list of the movies that I could click on, which was real handy.

    Keep on writing and have a HAPPY NEW YEAR! Walter S.

    1. Hi Walter
      Happy New Year.
      With the new format you can now access that alphabetical list of Westerns reviewed. Click on ‘Western movies’ near the bottom of the home page, then o, a’aa WESTERN MOVIES AND TV SHOWS REVIEWED’ in the top right hand corner of the new page.
      Jeff

      1. Jeff, thanks for the directions and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

        I made a mistake on my above comment. I meant to refer to Lesley Selander’s FORT YUMA(1955) and not Howard W. Koch’s FORT BOWIE(filmed 1957, released 1958). Also, Vincent at westernmoviesfr informed me that Lesley Selander’s FORT COURAGEOUS(filmed 1964, released 1965) was probably the first Selander Western Movie released on Blu-ray in 2018.

        Take care and stay healthy. Walter S.

  2. Great rewriting ! Just for the amateurs, Saskatoon born and excellent Kim Coates, seen in many tv shows, is a member of the Sons of Anarchy.
    Contrats for the touch-up site Jeff with some great improvements but I am wondering if I need to get registered again since I do not receive the new alerts anymore ? JM

  3. At last I had the opportunity (Not a Netflix subscriber…) to watch Godless long after having read you and I just can say that I fully agree with you on everything you wrote !
    The story (Jeff Daniels and his bunch made me think of Blood Meridians sometimes but there are some rare zests of humor too), the cast (see further down), the photo, the dialogues, the superb Land of Enchantment backdrop and all these subtle borrows to many westerns (you may have added Shane or even Guns of Fort Petticoat but without any training session and Sergio Leone…) mixed up with historical mentions (Geronimo campaign, Blackdom today a ghostown was a black community in the 1900-1920s …), the sets, props, costumes and an impressive and extensive arsenal : Colt cap and balls, Colt conversions and Single Action, SW Schofield and New Model 3 and a very rarely seen Merwin & Hulbert, a huge variery of Winchester models – even if Jeff Daniels is speaking of a 73 model for what it looks more like a 66, Henry, shotguns and cutlasses. The only flaw though is the absence of Derringer…
    I am surprised you are not criticizing the choice of British and East Coast actors as, usually you are finding them too posh for the genre… Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey), Jack O’Connell (Rogue Heroes), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones) are from UK. Merritt Wever (The Walking Dead) comes from New York like Tess Frazer (the whore turned schoolteacher), Sam Waterston from Cambridge, MA, and Marceline Hugot from Connecticut are bringing a New England touch. Jeff Daniels is from Georgia.
    North of the border, I had previously mentioned the excellent Kim Coates from Saskatoon. Joe Pingue “Bunker” is from Niagara Falls, Ontario. Duane Howard (seen in The Revenant) who plays the Shoshone “ghost” is from a British Columbia Pacific Coast tribe.
    Happily enough, thanks to a huge cast, some are from Dallas, Texas (the short sighted sheriff) or Butte, Montana (the big fellow expert in knife throwing who is a MMA champion).
    An other major achievement for Steve Soderbergh as the main producer of the show.
    I hope to rewatch it quickly, not sure if Netflix will let edit a DVD…

    1. Glad you enjoyed it.
      I don’t actually have a problem with British or non-Western actors per se. They don’t all get it right but many do. And of course the West of the post-Civil War era was rife with people from all over the US and indeed the world.

      1. Sure ! I was just teasing you.
        Back to Godless I have forgotten the music which matches the rest.

  4. Happy to see this post bubble up with comments.

    I saw this series shortly after its release and very much agree with your assessment. While watching it, I recall wondering if Sam Waterston had appeared in other westerns, because the cragginess of his face and reediness of his voice is certainly well-suited to the genre (I quickly scanned IMDB and see Civil War pictures but no other westerns, but it really was a quick look.) I have always thought Michelle Dockery looked like a person out of time. She played tough very well in Downtown Abbey and did so in this series as well. Really, the whole cast was excellent.

    1. I believe Waterson has a role in ‘Heaven’s Gate’. He was in the modern Western ‘Rauncho Deluxe’, also.

        1. Thanks, Chris! Someday, perhaps, I’ll get to ‘Heaven’s Gate’. Sam probably wasn’t quite so craggy back in 1980.

          1. I like Wasterston too. He was quite convincing playing Lincoln in ‘Gore Vidal’s Lincoln’ (he also voiced Lincoln in the great Ken Burns Civil War series). His daughter Katherine Waterson is talented too especially in one of my favorite neo noirs ‘Inherent Vice’ from 2015 with Joaquin Phoenix. She is stunning in that.

    2. Yes, he was Frank Canton in HEAVEN’s GATE, quite a big part, and he was 4th-billed, even before Isabelle Huppert as Ella.

  5. It is interesting (following Jeff’s astonishingly brilliant dyptich on American Indians in the Western) to note that nowadays American Indians are more more played by American Indians… Or Canadians as in the case of Godless where beside of the Shoshone ghost, Alberta’ s Tantoo Cardinal is justly celebrated by Jeff. She was in Dance with wolves, Legend if the Fall (more a melodrama than a pure western) and more recently in Killers of the Flower Moon along with many other excellent “natives”.
    About Sam Waterston, yes, he was an excellent chilling and wholly detestable Frank Canton in Heaven’s Gate, one of the most pervert villain of the whole genre. He played in british directed (I have forgotten the director…) Eagle’s Wing (an other horse story) with Harvey Keitel, Martin Sheen and French actress Stéphane Audran. He truly is a very versatile actor able to jump from Woody Allen or James Ivory to Sci-fi or spy films.

    1. Yes very versatile actor. He was one of the better Lincoln performances to go with Daniel Day Lewis, Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, and Hal Holbrook as some of my favorites along with Waterston.

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