'Godless' will make you believe in westerns again

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Merritt Wever and Michelle Dockery in <em>Godless</em>. (Photo: James Minchin/Netflix)
Merritt Wever and Michelle Dockery in Godless. (Photo: James Minchin/Netflix)

To those of us who love the western genre, any attempt to revitalize the form, on big screen or small, is considered not just welcome but heroic. It’s difficult to do something new in one of modern entertainment’s oldest genres. The format started shooting blanks commercially some time in the 1990s, soon after the 1989 TV miniseries Lonesome Dove. What was the last big-hit theatrical Western? Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven? And do you know anyone under the age of 50 who paid money to see the excellent 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma? So throw your 10-gallon hat into the air and give a hoot and a holler for Godless, the latest benefactor of Netflix’s give-em-a-binge largesse. A seven-hours-plus honest-to-gosh western created by writer-director Scott Frank, Godless features cowboys on horses, lots of shootin’ and ropin’, and a feminist twist so thoroughly integrated into the premise, no ornery dude can possibly complain.

In Godless, the frontier town of La Belle is mostly inhabited by women: A coal-mine disaster killed off all the able-bodied men, and some of the women have used this tragedy as an opportunity to enjoy a new freedom. Most notable among them is Merritt Wever’s Mary Agnes, who totes a rifle and talks as tough as any male gunslinger. Wever, who won an Emmy for her far more meek character in Nurse Jackie, has a great time in this juicy role. Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery shows up as a frontier woman living on the outskirts of town. She takes in a mysterious fellow named Roy Goode, played by Jack O’Connell (Skins, Unbroken), who’s being hunted by Frank Griffin, a ferociously sadistic bad-guy played at the very precipice of amusement by Jeff Daniels.

Godless is loaded with characters and plots. Sam Waterston has a highly entertaining turn as a marshal whose bristly mustache seems like a supporting character itself; Scoot McNairy is a different lawman — one who’s slowly going blind, but not before he too hunts down the much-sought-after Roy Goode. There is an enclave of black farmers outside La Belle who just want to be left alone — which means they won’t. There’s Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), a cocky young deputy who twirls a pair of pearl-handled revolvers and seems like a nod to Ricky Nelson’s character in the great Howard Hawks western Rio Bravo. Indeed, the spirit of classic westerns hovers over Godless — writer-director Scott Frank is awfully fond of invoking, numerous times, the famous doorway shot in John Ford’s immortal The Searchers.

Scott Frank is an exceptional writer: His screenplay for 1998’s Steven Soderbergh film Out of Sight is a modern classic; last year he debuted as a novelist with the sleek and twisty thriller Shaker; and he co-wrote the script for what’s arguably the best superhero movie thus far, Logan. Frank is working here with his Out of Sight partner Soderbergh, who’s an executive producer of Godless. There are times when it seems as though Frank is so excited by this rare opportunity to do his big western, he’s crammed in too much. You’re midway through Godless and you might think, wait, why haven’t we seen McNairy’s Sheriff Bill McNue in a couple of hours? How, exactly, does Dockery’s Alice Fletcher connect to the town of La Belle? And, wait a minute, there’s a German portrait painter (Christiane Seidel) living in that town?

But ultimately, the sheer pleasure of Godless defeats any reservations you may have about it. Daniels is both hilarious and scary, and he’s clearly having a great time pulling on his scraggly beard as this project’s ultimate villain. And there’s a long, well-staged shootout at the end that is both very-traditional-western and something totally new, because more than half the shooters are women, with guns blazing. It may sound like an odd thing to say that it’s exciting to see women shooting guns and getting shot while in action, but it is, simply because you have never seen a large group of women in control of their destinies in the western genre like this before. The landscape in which this long movie is set may be, as Daniels’s Frank Griffin declares it, “godless,” but this western suggests that being manless ain’t necessarily a bad thing.

Godless is streaming now on Netflix.

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