Godless review: A modern twist on the classic Western

Catherine Pearson
Photo credit: Ursula Coyote/Netflix

From Digital Spy

Fans of a good ol' fashioned Western will be happy to see this visually stunning new Netflix drama set on the wild frontier.

The quiet mining town of La Belle in New Mexico has been through a lot. Having been built from the ground up by families that headed to the desolate area to start a new life, a horrific accident has left the town largely husbandless and fatherless.

Emerging from the rising dust come a small band of strong-willed women and, hot on their heels, some businessmen who think they can seize the town's resources. They promise money and a fresh batch of blokes to get the ladies making babies again. Something says it ain't gonna be quite that easy.

Meanwhile, the town of Creede in Colorado has been invaded by an unknown gang of godless killers. The series opens on the haunting images of the ransacked town; homes have been burned to the ground, a steam locomotive has been derailed, bodies litter the desert floor and the town's residents have been lynched in what remains of the buildings and trees.

A single soul has survived; a woman gently singing in the eerie silence. Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston) approaches the scene, falling to his knees in horror when he looks up to find a young child hanging by his neck.

Enter Jack O'Connell as Roy Goode, a hunted man on the run from a notorious pack of thieves and murderers fronted by the infamous Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels). It's not clear why Goode finds himself in such hot water, but it gets hotter when he arrives at the home of widow Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) and is promptly shot in the neck for trespassing. Realising that Goode is already wounded and seeking help, Fletcher takes in the stranger, where her mother-in-law (Tantoo Cardinal) and son Truckee (Samuel Marty) care for him.

Scott Frank's new series is a nostalgic return to the classic Western aesthetic but with an exciting modern twist. While the saloon doors are still a-swingin' and the men folk are still a-drinkin' and a-shootin' whenever they have the chance, the women are beginning a quiet revolution. The feminists have landed in the lawless frontier... and it's thrilling.

Photo credit: James Minchin/Netflix

Merritt Wever is a superstar as the straight-talking force of nature Mary Agnes who has approached the loss of her husband with the bravery and matter-of-factness of a woman who recognises that a town cannot run on grief.

"Albert's dead, there's no need for me to keep carrying his name about like a bucket of water," she tells a visiting businessman of her decision to use her maiden name. Michelle Dockery puts in an assured and compelling performance as a woman who, too, is no stranger to loss. Handling the arrival of Roy Goode with calmness and caution, she tells her story in a colourful monologue that would run the risk of being a bit cheesy in anyone else's hands.

Unlike some classic Westerns, the danger does not come from the Native Americans who once called the land theirs; the real threat lies at the hands of vengeful white American men. It's another important modern shift, with the Native American characters instead living quietly beside the residents of La Belle and known chiefly, if somewhat feared also, for their ability to heal the sick and wounded.

The idea of the powerful Western alpha male is challenged in the character of sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), a bereaved husband with ailing health who finds himself emasculated in a town where cold-hearted pragmatism and agility are expected of the few men remaining.

Jack O'Connell, meanwhile, gives a strong performance as the young, fit and mysterious gunslinger, while Thomas Brodie-Sangster's Whitey Winn is master of pistol-spinning and, like the rest of this Brit-heavy cast, sports a flawless US accent.

Photo credit: Ursula Coyote/Netflix

You would be forgiven for needing to watch the first episode more than once. While the show begins with an intriguing premise and some great, well-rounded characters, quite a few faces and names appear in a short space of time and every line they drawl proves important to the plot going forward.

We're not saying you should go as far as drawing up family trees (probably something a lame TV journalist would do, maybe, *cough*) but the experience is all the richer once you've nailed down who is on whose side. When most people are hidden behind Stetsons and 'taches it's not always so easy to be sure.

Something that doesn't take time and effort to appreciate is the stunning cinematography. The show opens to a dense and foreboding mist that gradually lifts to reveal the steam pouring out of the derailed train at the town of Creede. It's deeply unsettling but strangely beautiful.

Every frame is breathtaking in its own way, whether it's of dust carried on the wind (a classic, tumbleweed-style indication that the characters are remote and exposed) or sun pouring through the slats of an old, dilapidated barn.

There are plenty of low-angle shots throughout, implying that while the characters may own the land upon which they're standing it is always under threat; from gangs, of course, but more importantly from Mother Nature herself. The angled lens perfectly captures the sweltering midday haze and the blinding setting sun. So many scenes in Godless appear to be captured in that orangey "magic hour" half-light; nowhere is this colour more glorious than in the scene that closes the first episode.

Frank Griffin's men are moving in on La Belle. Moments after Marshal Cook looks down on the town from the mountain and prays, "God help you folks", Griffin's men stampede across a river on horseback. The spray of the water catches the light and glows as the low sun glints off the previously calm waters. Something bad is coming, but, in this moment, what a beautiful mess they're making.

Godless is available to watch now on Netflix.

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