‘‘Godless’’ – a visually stunning Western

Posted: Martyna Šalčiūtė Date: 2018-06-17 10:07

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"Godless" series

American director Scott Frank has created a long list of works both in TV and on the big screen since his critically acclaimed directorial debut, the 2007 crime film ‘‘The Lookout’’. He has worked on famous films like ‘’Wolverine’’ and ‘’Logan’’. The latter even surpassed ‘’The Wolverine’s’’ success in the box office, and has been dubbed by some as the greatest superhero movie of all time. However, Scott Frank moves away from superheroes and steps into the world of gunfights and tumbleweeds with his newest work, the seven-part Netflix miniseries ‘’Godless’’.

‘’Godless’’ is set in 1884 Colorado, in the frontier town of La Belle. It’s everything we’re used to seeing in the era of cowboys and desperados – dusty, reclusive, residing near a coal mine that’s targeted by a greedy company. Though there is one twist – after a coal-mining disaster resulted in the death of all men in the town, the women needed to take matters into their own hands and fend for themselves. So, the town is inhabited by gun-slinging, incredible women such as Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever) or Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), twice widowed and living on the outskirts of town.

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A large group of women kicking ass and taking names, in control of their own lives isn’t common to the Western genre. After watching the promotional trailer, I came in with the expectation of entering ‘’No Man’s Land’’ and for the widows of La Belle to be the centre of the show. But I was a bit disappointed that Scott Frank didn’t utilize this storyline to its full potential. In reality, much of this plot seems to be pushed aside in favour of the rivalry that runs between outlaw Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his protégé turned enemy Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) who is taken in by Alice Fletcher.

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The dynamic of the women of La Belle gives a more modern and atypical twist to the Western genre, but it’s not the focus of the show. Much of the emphasis is put on the cliché good guy versus bad guy story. But as Frank said: ‘‘I really wanted to embrace every single western cliché. I didn’t want to reinvent the aesthetic of westerns; I didn’t want it to be modern. I wanted to embrace all of the stuff that made old-school westerns.” So, I suppose he got the wanted effect. Taking all of this into consideration ‘’Godless’’ truly keeps the spirit of Western alive by featuring many cliché tropes that are inherently assigned to the genre. Among these are the callous outlaw, the tough widow, the reclusive small town, the train heist.

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Westerns are very inherently American, they feature the struggle of finding a balance between freedom and order. They glorify the individualist – the lonely cowboy or outlaw going it alone rather than being part of a close-knit community. ‘’Godless’’ sends another message, that community is important, and by working together you can overcome anything. It is just a shame the all-female community in the Wild West storyline wasn’t delivered as strongly in the show as it was marketed, but regardless, we do see the women of La Belle working together as a functioning society despite the tragedy in their small town. It sends the message that there is strength in numbers.

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The director uses the grasslands and vistas of New Mexico to produce classic panoramas of cruel deserts that just spread way past the horizon. For me, some of the show’s most memorable and arresting moments were those that had few words in them. The cinematography is enough to do the talking as the characters make their way through the desert on horseback or observe what remains in the aftermath of a heist. Visually, this show is stunning yet grim. From the first episode’s start, we’re thrown into the chilling atmosphere – minutes after a train heist led by Griffin, we encounter the bodies strewn across the ground, bloody, dead. The only survivor – a young woman – singing mournfully whilst cradling a corpse.

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Many of the scenes whilst aesthetically pleasing are quite drawn out, mainly to set the atmosphere of the Old West or to up the tension. Frank originally wrote the script for ‘’Godless’’ with the intention for it to be developed as a movie, but executive producer Steven Soderbergh encouraged him to turn it into a miniseries. We get the idea why Soderbergh though the script was more suited for a miniseries after watching the pilot episode. It starts off so slow and steady, only grazing over what’s in store for future episodes, setting the scene and background. The same atmosphere would have been lost if it was rushed through in a movie.

‘’Godless’’ is a slow and beautiful Western with its captivating and breath-taking visuals and atmosphere. It’s worth watching just for aesthetic pleasure, or if you need a show that stays true to its genre.