movie film review | chris tookey

Godless (TV)

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  Godless (TV) Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
8.36 /10
Jack O'Connell , Michelle Dockery , Scoot McNairy
Full Cast >

Directed by: Scott Frank
Written by: Scott Frank

Released: 2017
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 0

A supposedly feminist western mini-series is nothing of the sort - and all the better for it.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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This seven-part western began life as a feature film, but executive producer Steven Soderbergh wisely realised that it had enough material for seven episodes of over an hour each, making eight hours in all; the result is a western with far more depth and complexity than usual, with time to make us care about those characters who are killed, and with the kind of brilliant cinematography for which John Ford westerns are justly revered. It helps that the action mainly takes place in the unfamiliar landscapes of Colorado and New Mexico, rather than the more cliched western territory of Utah. This is the best-looking TV series I have ever seen.

Another reason to watch it is the acting - way above the norm. Veterans such as Jeff Daniels, Sam Waterston and Merrit Weaver fly the American flag; but many of the most memorable contributions are from young Brits - notably Michelle Dockery, Jack O’Connell and Thomas Brodie-Sangster - all with impeccable accents.

The marketing people at Netflix did Godless no favours by making it appear as if it was a feminist re-write of the western. The imagery in the publicity material of women carrying rifles in a town bereft of men and the early revelation that two of the most sympathetic characters are lesbians raised (or lowered) expectations that this would be a hardline expose of sexism in the Old West. I recall a few feeble attempts at feminist westerns in the cinema during the mid-Nineties - notably The Ballad of little Jo (1993), Bad Girls (1994) and The Quick and the Dead (1995) - but these are remembered by only a few critics, and not with much affection, even by feminists. Suffice it to say that Godless isn’t like them in the least. And it never sets out to be a feminist tract.

Scott Frank, who wrote and directed Godless, is a mainstream film-maker, whose best films include the not noticeably female-dominated Get Shorty, Minority Report and Marley and Me. He has said that he did not intend Godless to be feminist, though he plainly created it with the idea of giving some strong female actors the chance to strut their stuff. The underlining theme of the series is that old feminist bugbear, Patriarchy. But though Frank analyses male dominance in the Old West with a beady eye and more than a trace of 21st century irony, he doesn’t try to pretend that women were more important in the Old West than they were. He even argues that Patriarchy had its place then, whatever its status may be now.

The first patriarch on display is a traditional male authority figure, Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston). He rides into the town of Creede, Colorado, in a dust storm. As it clears, he surveys the carnage of a derailed train and local inhabitants who have been shot in the head, or - in the case of one small boy - lynched. Another patriarch is responsible: an outlaw gang-leader named Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), who dresses like a preacher, adopts children and young men he can bend to his will, and annihilates with biblical fury anyone who tries to block his path. Unconventionally, the Marshall is a little too cocky and over-confident to be the one who brings Frank Griffin to justice. This is one of several ways in which Godless subverts the traditional western. Jeff Daniels, who has spent most of his career playing nice guys, is wonderfully demented as Frank, whose response to having his arm amputated is to carry it with him at all times, as a grisly memento.

The hero of the piece emerges, and it’s not a female but one of Frank’s outlaws, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), an orphan whom Frank adopted as his favoured son. Roy saves a woman from being raped by Frank’s men. Roy’s desertion with some of Frank’s money is the factor which caused Frank to destroy every man, woman and child in Creede, Colorado.

“Roy Goode betrayed me, and I will kill any man, woman, or child who harbors him,” Frank informs a scared but weirdly impressed newspaper editor. “The good people of Creede let him walk their streets. And now they don’t have any streets. Or people.”

The central motor of the plot is the battle between evil Frank Griffin and (relatively) good Roy Goode, and it’s that macho storyline that builds to the inevitable, spectacular showdown in episode seven, which has echoes of Quentin Tarantino and The Magnificent Seven.

Early on, Roy finds a home on a ranch belonging to two-times widow Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery, pictured right, showing the same talent for losing lovers and husbands that she did in Downton Abbey). Her primitive notion of foreplay involves shooting Roy off his horse, but at least she allows him into her barn to recover. Over the next weeks, he ingratiates himself with her and her half-Native son, Truckee (Samuel Marty). Roy shows them how to train wild horses, while she teaches him how to read. There are more than a few echoes here of that classic cinematic western, Shane. Some critics felt this plot-line dragged; I rather liked the leisurely, detailed way the story unfolds. The three-cornered relationship is given time to evolve credibly, as Roy Goode discovers his inner patriarch. This annoyed a few feminist critics, who thought the series should have been about women living independently of men. Godless takes the conventional - and to my mind eminently sensible - view that a young boy ideally needs a senior male role-model to help him develop. Needless to say, fathers are more suitable than gang-leaders.

Unwittingly, by his presence, Roy endangers both Alice’s ranch and the neighbouring town of La Belle, New Mexico. Doubtless because she married a Native American, Alice and her son are ostracised by the women of La Belle, which lost almost all of its male citizens a few years back in a mining disaster. There is a male sheriff (Scoot McNairy), but he’s got bad eyesight and a reputation for cowardice. His deputy is a gangly, ineffectual youth called Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) who, despite his nickname, is attracted to a luscious black girl from the neighbouring, all-black township. A feminist western might have played these two for laughs, but Whitey is beautifully played for maximum pathos, and the growing authority of the undervalued sheriff has echoes of that other classic western, High Noon.

The everyday leader of the town, however, is the sheriff’s sister and widow of the late mayor, Maggie McNue (Merritt Wever, pictured left). She has discovered her inner lesbian, and an outer one too in Callie Dunne (Tess Frazer), who has established a school in the former brothel, Magdalena’s House of Rapture.

The women of LaBelle, whatever their sexual proclivities, are awaiting the very belated arrival of a male pastor and are busy building a church in his absence. Hence the title Godless, though Frank Griffin makes the point that the whole Wild West is godless.

There are ways in which Godless subverts the traditional western, and ways in which it glorifies it and refers to many of its greatest moments - and images. (There’s a lovely framing of Michelle Dockery in a doorway that is a dead ringer for a famous shot of John Wayne in The Searchers.) For a western, it’s pretty thoughtful, and it’s refreshing to see actresses play leading roles in a western.

Feminist, it isn’t. Excellent, it is. Oh my God, I’m turning into Yoda.

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