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'Godless': A Prequel to 'The Queen's Gambit'?

My review of this Netflix limited series by Scott Frank.

If you have not seen The Queen’s Gambit (see my review here), I fear you may have taken requisite pandemic ‘isolation’ a bit too far. This seven-episode mini-series had 62 million viewers in the first four weeks after its release, making it Netflix’s most-watched series, ever.

The Queen’s Gambit has bearing here since it was written and directed by Scott Frank. After being thoroughly absorbed by this improbable, hugely successful series (appearing to be about chess), I couldn’t help but take in another in Frank’s oeuvre of films. He has been bountiful as a screenwriter (including Logan, The Wolverine, Minority Report, The Interpreter, and Get Shorty). But Godless (2017) has his credits extend to both writing and directing, as they did for The Queen’s Gambit.

Frank cinematically throws us into an utterly different genre of film: An American Western, the wild and lawless west of the late 1800s, not unlike Clint Eastwood’s stack of films set in the same period and milieu. And no less bloody and dark, with good at war with evil for dominance. This is godless frontier country inhabited by godless men.

A mining accident has killed about all the men of La Belle, a dusty, depressed town, tragically leaving it to their women relations. Thereby making Godless a feminist western! On top of that, it is surfeit with love stories that cross the divides of the era depicted: two women in love, a romance between a white man and a black woman, and a slow-building love between a drifter/hero and a woman living with the chilling memory of rape. Further woven into this complex quilt of a story is the tumultuous, ultimately deadly, “pappy”-son kinship that heightens the film’s noir, as well as its search for justice.

In other words, there is a lot going on here. Do forgive me, then, as I provide you with both narrative and characters, which may help retain your bearings.

The grieving, mining town of La Belle is resurrected as a matriarchal society, embodied with decency and determination by Godless’ lead trio of women: Mary Agnes, the town’s (gay) woman Mayor (Merritt Wever); Callie Dunne, a school teacher and rich entrepreneur whose wealth derived from her former life as a prostitute (Tess Frazer); and Alice Fletcher, a traumatized, single mother and rancher (Michelle Dockery).

Turns out, the mine has value. The mining company owners send a nasty group of men to not only take over the mine but the town as well. Their lead villain is Ed Logan (Kim Coates), festooned with a slick, black mustache, who means to take no prisoners when his intentions are thwarted by the women—and a few good men.

The decent men, themselves with no shortage of grit, are the lead male, orphaned ‘horse-whisperer’ Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell); Deputy Sherriff Whitey Winn, skinny as a beanpole and who can shoot the head off a snake across the room (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, familiar from The Queen’s Gambit); the Marshal of Santa Fe, John Cook (Sam Waterston); and Sheriff Scoot McNairy, the clock ticking as he is losing his sight (Bill McNue).

The film’s evil is powerfully amplified by a band of murderous outlaws, roaming and pillaging the territory. They are led by a one-armed hypocrite, Frank Griffin, who wears a collar and is given to quoting the Bible (an almost unrecognizable Jeff Daniels). He happens to be Roy Goode’s “pappy,” taking him in as a boy with nowhere to go. It is Griffin who now is out to kill Roy, his ‘adopted’ son, who turned against his barbarous pappy.

We then enter the film’s pair of showdowns, both with Frank Griffin as the principal bad guy.

Griffin leads a massive hoard of mounted, heavily armed desperadoes to destroy La Belle, and murder its principally women residents. He should have known better. He escapes when the action turns against him and decimates his men, one and all. Only in war movies do I recall having seen so many bullets flying.

But Roy Goode spots Griffin high-tailing it on his mount, and takes off in pursuit. Then it’s echoes of the scene in The O.K. Corral, except it’s in a clearing in the woods. Godless pappy Frank, 20 paces from Roy, his turned good ‘son.’ Frank learns his final and fatal lesson in life.

Godless concludes its 452-minute, seven-episode ‘mini-series’ by stitching together its many parts. Peace and justice, but not love, prevail. But that’s a lot better than it could have been.

My new book is Ink-Stained For Life.

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