A person could spend years and even decades waiting for a Western as immersive and satisfying as “Godless,” Scott Frank’s seven-part drama for Netflix. True to the genre in almost every way (and yet refreshingly modern in providing strong, vital roles for women), it plays like a seven-hour film without wasting a glorious, gritty, panoramic minute. And as a bonus, not a single character is one of “Westworld’s” subservient cyborgs. This here’s the real McCoy.
And if “Godless” grips you like a movie, perhaps that’s because it began as an idea for one: Frank, whose screenwriting credits are as varied as “Minority Report” and “Marley & Me,” shelved this labor of love more than a decade ago — a three-hour Western that never got off the ground. Steven Soderbergh, who has all but forsaken the movie business for TV, persuaded Frank to expand the screenplay into a series. As such, “Godless,” which premiered Wednesday, represents a near-perfect melding of both forms, making good on the boundless promises of the streaming frontier. Though it’s tempting to gallop through it in a single binge, “Godless” is worth slowing down and savoring.
The story, set in northern New Mexico in 1884, revolves around a notorious gang of silver thieves led by Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), whose capricious derangement mixes both a violent and spiritual nature. During a raid on a train in Creede, Colo., Frank is betrayed by his protege Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell of “Unbroken”), whom Frank adopted as a boy. In a showdown between the men, Frank loses his left arm. After they’ve massacred the citizens of Creede, Frank and his men set off in pursuit of Roy, seeking revenge.
It’s worth noting early on that “Godless” is unsparing in its depiction of violence and murder. Its gore is rarely gratuitous, yet some may find it too grisly to accept. While a family of traveling Norwegian settlers is tormented in the second episode, one victim cries out that Frank is “no man of God.”
This sets Frank on a brief lecture on the everyday horrors of what we now benignly refer to as the “Wild West”:
“God? What God?” Frank asks. “Mister, you clearly don’t know where you are. Look around. There ain’t no higher-up around here to watch over you and your young’uns. This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the blade and the rifle. It’s godless country. And the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you all are gonna live.”
This gets at an essential nature of the Western genre — a dichotomy between the jaw-dropping beauty of the American West and the relentless suffering and greed it took to populate it with nonnative settlers and strivers. Shot on location on an 81,000-acre ranch near Lamy, N.M., “Godless” is just stunning to look at. It’s true that every Western is accompanied by a few standard-issue sweeping vistas, but Steven Meizler’s cinematography lends the series a striking authenticity and shows an instinctive understanding of a high-desert environment and ecosystem. It’s refreshing to see New Mexico treated as something other than a backdrop for a Road Runner cartoon.
Wounded and desperate, Roy has the good fortune to trot up to a horse ranch owned by Alice Fletcher — played by Michelle Dockery, who continues to marvelously distance herself from her Lady Mary days on “Downton Abbey.” Alice, a widow toughened by circumstance, is struggling to break a herd of three dozen horses, working with her adolescent son, Truckee (Samuel Marty), and her Paiute mother-in-law, Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal).
The Fletcher ranch sits just outside the town of La Belle, where a recent mining disaster killed nearly every man in town — 83 in all — leaving their widows to figure out what to do next. Losing their husbands and providers has changed them. Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever of “Nurse Jackie”) dons trousers and tweeds, reclaims her maiden name and acts as La Belle’s de facto mayor. Her brother, Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy of “Halt and Catch Fire”), is the town’s mopey sheriff, disregarded by the citizenry as a coward and outshot by his rambunctious young deputy, Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster).
“Godless” is exceptionally good in dealing with many characters at once, including Sam Waterston as John Cook, the U.S. marshal based in Santa Fe. Attention is paid to each character’s nuances and shortcomings as an emotional storm builds up to a fine example of a Wild West showdown. The cast is phenomenal; Daniels makes a memorably menacing bad guy from start to finish, and O’Connell, as Roy, is convincing as a quiet and flawed hero.
As a way to prove himself to his citizens, Sheriff Bill sets out, somewhat comically, to find Frank Griffin’s gang, while an egocentric Taos newspaperman, A.T. Grigg (Jeremy Bobb), stirs up rumors in print, hoping to cover the gunfight of the century.
It is here that the women of La Belle realize that they must rely on themselves, arming up with their late husbands’ rifles and pistols to defend their town from the masculine posturing and chaos that’s inexorably headed their way. As “Godless” briefly pivots on a strongly feminist note, Netflix again exhibits its uncanny luck with timing: What could be more affirming right now than a show about women standing together against an invading horde of brutes?
Correction: This review originally referred to the nationality of the 19th-century settlers attacked and tormented by Frank Griffin and his gang. They are Norwegian, not German. This file has been updated.
Godless (seven episodes) is now streaming on Netflix.