Netflix’s ‘Godless’ stretches its simple Western story until it breaks

Wever (left) and Dockery defend their home.
Photo: Netflix / Courtesy

Two and a half stars

Godless Available November 22 on Netflix.

It’s refreshing at first to experience the old-fashioned Western rhythms of Godless, a seven-episode Netflix limited series entirely written and directed by Scott Frank, but those rhythms get a little off as the series progresses. Like too many prestige TV series, Godless is basically a feature film dragged out over multiple episodes, and Frank fills it with extraneous subplots, superfluous flashbacks and useless supporting characters. A veteran Hollywood screenwriter, Frank has written and directed a couple of underrated small-scale thrillers (The Lookout, A Walk Among the Tombstones), and Godless has a great throwback Western movie buried somewhere under all the excess flab.

At its core, Godless’ plot is pretty standard Western material: There’s a sadistic gunman leading a gang of outlaws, cutting a swath of terror across the frontier. An over-the-hill sheriff and a reformed outlaw are there to oppose the villain, along with some hardy pioneer women who prove tougher than they first appear. After a lot of meandering, the characters converge on a dusty New Mexico town for a bloody climactic shootout, with a massive body count.

Jeff Daniels is good as the menacing, unpredictable Frank Griffin, who spouts Bible verses as easily as he slaughters dozens of people. But Jack O’Connell and Scoot McNairy are a little bland as upstanding gunslinger Roy Goode and determined lawman Bill McNue, respectively, and their character arcs are not interesting enough to justify all the time Frank spends on them. Merritt Wever, as the sheriff’s gun-toting, proto-feminist lesbian sister, is entertaining enough to make a case that she should have been the hero, and Michelle Dockery has some moments of quiet intensity as the hardened rancher who takes Roy in.

As a director, Frank has an eye for sweeping Western vistas, and the thrilling final battle is masterfully staged. It takes far too long to get there, though, with entire episodes in the middle of the series that seemingly could have been removed entirely. Everything from the costumes to the character types to the wonderfully vintage-sounding score by Carlos Rafael Rivera points to Frank’s obvious love for old-school Westerns, but one of the best things about those Westerns is how economical they were, often finishing up in around 75 minutes. Godless has more than one episode that runs that same amount of time, slowing the simple story down to a crawl.

You could skip straight from the first episode to the last and get most of what’s important about the story and the character development, along with plenty of flavorful dialogue and rustic visuals. It would take about two and a half hours—just the right amount of time for a substantial, satisfying feature film.

Tags: Film
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