GODLESS Review: Don’t Forget The Girls Of La Belle
The central conceit of Godless - Netflix's near eight-hour (but seven episode) revisionist Western from writer/director Scott Frank and producer Steven Soderbergh (who worked together on the superlative Out of Sight) - is nothing less than genius. La Belle is a New Mexico mining town that's almost solely populated by women, thanks to an accident that killed nearly every man in town. These widows are left to their own devices, pretty figurines in a dusty landscape that's brutal and merciless when it comes to the elements, plague and violence. Yet that doesn't stop these strong women from flourishing, as they rebuild in the absence of men. Essentially, it's taking the Old West we've known and loved for decades and robbing it of the icon most viewers have come to associate with its terrain: the haggard gunslinger, looking to make his fortune, come hell or high water. Sounds like a pretty good set up for some feminist re-writing of Manifest Destiny, wouldn't you say?
That's certainly how Netflix sold the limited series: full of hard females, all cautiously eyeing anything with a penis that comes strolling into camp. Unfortunately, Frank and Soderbergh's show isn't quite the woman-centric gift basket the streaming giant promised. While La Belle is certainly one of the main focuses of this dirt-smeared brutality exhibition, the main narrative revolves around two outlaws: one-armed, stone cold Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), and Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell), the "son" he adopted into his gang long ago. Seems Roy took umbrage with his surrogate pappy's murderous ways and made off with one of his bounties, which inadvertently led to a savage massacre in Creede, Colorado. Now, Griffin's in hot pursuit, and where do you think this chase is going to take them? It's a father/son dispute that's routed on a collision course with feminist ideals, narratively literalizing the series' main flaw: a conflict of central themes.
Only it's tough to get too bent out of shape regarding these discordant country melodies when Frank delivers each storyline with a workmanlike attention to pulp construction. While never as showy as David Milch's Shakespearean filth in Deadwood, Frank finds just the right balance between the poetic and the profane, while never leaning into genre formalism too hard. In short, these characters all talk like people from their time, utilizing a colloquial slang that's peppered by foul language and arcane turns of phrase, but their speech is never dominated by either. Furthermore, when a gunslinger flies off into a pages-long monologue recalling their horrid past (tragedy is something each of these humans has endured in one form or another), it never feels ostentatious or too expositional. Frank is a writer's writer, but he's never flashy, bringing just the right amount of crackle, while never allowing his actors to truly showboat.
Nevertheless, these cowboys acquit themselves with aplomb. Daniels (Looper) makes you wonder why he hasn't spent his entire career playing ruthless killers, as he dons a beard and barks threats before mowing men down with startling ease, a fearless warrior claiming to have "seen" his own death long ago (and he'll tell you boy, this ain't it). Ditto Sam Waterson (Law & Order), whose facial hair is as God-like as his beady-eyed gaze. If it weren't for a storyline that sadly sends him offscreen for a solid chunk of Godless' runtime, Scoot McNairy (Killing Them Softly) might've stolen the whole show as a disgraced lawman who's losing his eyesight. Thomas Brodie-Sangster (The Maze Runner) brings a quiet longing to an aspiring deputy that's deep and heartfelt, as he pines for the daughter of a Buffalo Soldier he knows he can't be with. If anyone, it's O'Connell who feels slightly miscast (he's just too fresh-faced to buy as a wanted poster lifer), but still carries every scene he's in with a quiet grace.
The women of La Belle are portrayed with equal ferocity, as Mary Agnes (Merrit Wever) isn't ready to let any deceitful mining company come in and purchase their claim, thus ridding the ladies of control over the own fates. Mary Agnes is a stern woman, a barely-closeted lesbian deeply in love with the town's whore-turned-schoolteacher, Callie Dunne (Tess Frazier). But when she's outvoted by the council, who take the corporation's $20,000 offer, Mary Agnes finds herself at odds with their rather intimidating head of security (Kim Coates), while trying to subdue jealousy of Callie's time spent with the strange German widow (Sarah Minnich), who has no problem gallivanting around town nude, be it in boots or on horseback. Wever transforms Mary Agnes into a scene-stealer who could easily front her own series, full of piss and vinegar as she tries to warn the rest of La Belle about the dangers of selling out to men.
On the outskirts of camp is Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), an outcast living with the son and mother-in-law her disappeared "savage" ex left her with (some are sure to bristle at the rather antiquated fashion in which Frank portrays his Native American characters). But Alice may be the strongest of them all, maintaining her farm of horseflesh that's envied by the whole of La Belle, and striking up a deal with Roy after she wings him in the neck with a bullet from her rifle. In a turn reminiscent of Peter Fonda's '71 acid Western The Hired Hand, the outlaw agrees to help her tame these wild stallions (as Griffin taught him a rather wonderful horse-whispering technique) if she gifts him one upon completion. This partnership leads to a rather idiosyncratic domestic life, with the gunslinger filling in for the father her kid's never had, revealing himself to be much gentler than any could've ever expected.
The visual palette of Godless is quickly established in the first scene, as we tour the burnt-out corpse of Creede, Colorado. While the sole survivor sings a mournful hymn to Christ, cradling one of the dead in her arms, Marshal John Cook (Waterson) surveys the destruction, and cannot believe his eyes. Smoke from a train wreck up ahead obfuscates our vision, and casts an ashy haze on everything. Just as Cook discovers the light of day, he sees a young boy, swinging from a noose overhead. It’s a near-wordless several minutes, an engrossing triumph of cinematography from Scott Meizler (who also shot the pilot for Frank's ill-fated Charles Willeford series, Hoke) that continues into the next several hours. If it isn't dust that hangs over us like a specter of doom, it's rain or smoke, giving way to clear blue skies, so gunmen can pick us off our horses.
Godless was originally intended to be a two-hour feature, but Soderbergh encouraged Frank (who also wrote the screenplay for Logan, which makes so much more sense now), to expand his narrative into a miniseries. On paper, that seems counterintuitive: why potentially add fat to a lean steak that's meant to sizzle? Yet after watching the eighty-minute first installment - which barely spends any time in La Belle itself - it’s no wonder Soderbergh figured the script a better fit for episodic streaming. There are multiple threads juggled, but none feel like they're dragging on to fill screentime. Furthermore, Frank patiently develops his characters, imbuing each with a richness that feels meticulously calculated, rendering Griffin and Goode’s inevitable confrontation that much more emotionally impactful. On the flip-side, the seven-episode length highlights the strength of the limited series: it's a complete tale, told without straining to reach ten or thirteen chapters, or the need to serialize its players into oblivion.
Throughout the entirety of Godless, Scott keeps returning to sites of loss, where husbands, brothers, fathers, lovers, and other assorted kin were either killed or exited in an untimely fashion, leaving their better halves standing by the door, waiting for a ghost who will never return home. So, while Frank may not have utilized his all-woman mining town as a site for unbridled feminist critique of the Old West, he instead lets their tragedy set the stage for Godless's other defining theme: the permanence of loss, and how misfortune can alter an individual's timeline forever. An inescapable tinge of melancholy permeates each frame of this gunslinger's tale, so while the Western didn't fully capitalize on its promised premise (despite some rather noble attempts during the runtime), it still manages to weave its own unique tapestry of violence and sadness.