NEW YORK (CNS) — Viewers haven’t seen Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) of “Downton Abbey” fame quite like this.
In a stunning transformation, Dockery swaps her well-born English accent for a flat American one to play the pivotal role of tough New Mexico frontierswoman Alice Fletcher in Netflix’s new western “Godless.”
Visually striking if leisurely paced, the drama — which was released Nov. 22 — is streaming in seven one-hour episodes. A high level of violence, strong sexual content, including brief full nudity, as well as profane dialogue, however, strictly limit the appropriate audience for the series.
Viewers might reasonably expect a certain amount of mayhem in a show set in the Southwest of the 1880s — and largely revolving around an internecine dispute among a notorious gang of train robbers. Yet at times, the gruesomeness portrayed here is simply unjustifiable.
Images such as a severed arm, and a woman being slashed with a knife during a sexual assault, suggest that “Godless” may not even be acceptable fare for most adults.
Written and directed by Scott Frank (“Get Shorty”), the show chronicles the fallout of train robber Roy Goode’s (Jack O’Connell) decision to steal the ill-gotten gains of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), the head of Goode’s former gang. It also follows his choice’s impact on the small town of La Belle, New Mexico.
Escaping to La Belle, Goode startles Fletcher when he stumbles onto her ranch, and she shoots him. Goode recovers from the resulting wound at Fletcher’s home where Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) discovers and arrests him.
Believing Goode secure, McNue, haunted by tragedy, losing his eyesight, and considered a coward by La Belle’s populace, nonetheless sets off to track down Griffin’s gang and thereby head off the likely confrontation between Griffin and Goode.
Meanwhile, Fletcher springs Goode from jail because she needs him to break her 40 wild horses, which she hopes to sell to the townspeople. In exchange, Goode asks Fletcher to teach him to read.
Just as the narrative arc describes these characters’ individual movements toward redemption through their clash with Griffin, it also shows the community as a whole moving in a similar direction, albeit at an awful price.
Once the local silver mine had made the town happy, whole and prosperous. But a tragic mining accident wiped out most of the male population, leaving the women to keep the town alive.
With McNue’s fierce sister, Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), in the lead, they’re determined to make a go of it, trying to revive the mine, and patiently building a new church for a preacher who has promised to come, but is late in arriving. Highlighting strong female characters is one of the program’s chief strengths.
Performances are consistently outstanding and memorable as well: from McNairy’s soul-weary eyes to the force-of-nature sensibility Weaver brings to her role. And Daniels easily inhabits the complex, dangerous yet sympathetic Griffin. Though prone to ruthlessness, Griffin nonetheless displays compassion to smallpox victims he encounters in his search for Goode.
Additionally, “Godless” speaks to our society’s current debate over guns. The virtuoso filmmaking of the climactic showdown, which amplifies but doesn’t sensationalize the violence, will remind viewers why gun-control proponents rarely gain any ground.
Our weapons are more powerful and sophisticated now. But many Americans still subscribe to Griffin’s belief that there “ain’t nothin’ scarier than a man with a gun; ain’t nothin’ more helpless than a man without one.”
Despite much to recommend it, if the high body count in “Godless” doesn’t discourage viewers, the series’ languorous pacing may. Producing a film for Netflix, as opposed to one for theatrical release, gives moviemakers the luxury of time — and Frank revels in it to a damaging extent. A greater exercise of self-discipline and dialing back on the violence could have turned a self-indulgent show into a much better two-hour movie.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.