As screenwriter, director and executive respectively, Scott Frank, Steven Soderbergh and Casey Silver brought us the best-ever Elmore Leonard adaptation in Out Of Sight. Two decades later they reunite, with some seat-swapping: Silver and Soderbergh executive produce and Scott pulls double-duty as writer and director of an intimate odyssey into the West, plotting a vigorous new path through old terrain. Though an A-list screenwriter, Frank hasn’t previously had much commercial success as director — The Lookout and A Walk Among The Tombstones were both very fine, absorbing pictures few saw — and Godless spent many years grazing in Development Hell. But the wait has been worth it for the weight — the story is told over eight hours (split over seven episodes of varying lengths) and wouldn’t have been as engrossing as a film, where its character moments would have inevitably been cut to the bone. And those moments are what makes Godless sing: whether it’s the burgeoning love affairs between supporting characters, the town populated entirely by African Americans (whose story we won’t spoil here), or simply showing the process of “breaking” horses. That sequence, taming mounts so they can be ridden, informs at least three crucial relationships, provides a sense of true character and a lovely connection to the land. This is a show that really loves the earth, even if it doesn’t embrace the country — it knows what American can be at its best and what it is at its worst.
Daniels is mesmerising as the outlaw leader with a twisted morality born out of his own hurts. At first it feels like he may become a caricature of twisted Christianity, but there is more depth and nuance here, just as there is in the inhabitants of the town, with no-one — from school teacher to doughty widow — quite what they first appear. Frank teases by tweaking archetypes, presenting what feels familiar and then skewing so you think again. The casting is as superb as it is sometimes unexpected — Thomas Brodie-Sangster as a flash deputy? Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery as a tough, sharp-shooting rancher? Both unlikely bullseyes. Scoot McNairy is one of the best character actors working today and gives his world-weary sheriff a relatable humanity — he is just desperate to be useful. Perhaps the biggest joy, though, is to see Jack O’Connell as a fully fleshed out, rangy, American leading man. The Derby-born Brit has excelled in ’71 and Unbroken and has long had a feral charisma, but here it’s marbled with tenderness — a character saddled with regret, aiming for hope.
You can’t make a Western without recalling the many classics of the genre and Godless is on the same prairie as Clint Eastwood’s revisionist masterpiece, 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. It also echoes elements of the 1953 classic Shane — an influence that was also reflected in 2017’s other terrific American Western, Logan (co-written by Frank). But Godless feels original and lively in how its shot — contemporary without being ostentatious (not as loose and livewire as Soderbergh’s The Knick but with a similar, ‘whatever works’ energy). And, in its substance, very now — whether it’s in its depiction of violence fuelled by pernicious media (Jeremy Bobb makes a horribly convincingly conniving newspaperman), or the hopes and challenges of a town run by women, fighting the elements but, mostly violent, rapacious men. Whether it’s appreciated as a characterful Western drama or a prescient exploration of a country’s bloody birth, Godless shines its stars and has earned its stripes. Must watch.