If you're the sort who wants regular hits of fast action or thrilling twists in your Netflix binging, you're not going to get a lot of that satisfaction in its latest original drama.
Godless (which starts streaming on Netflix on Wednesday) is a six-part western. It has many merits and is a distinctly serious twist on the western genre while retaining the essentials. But it sprawls, moving slowly and takes its sweet time to balance action and character development. It's a big, brave western, culturally penetrating and entertaining in way that makes you savour scenes and dialogue, rather than anticipating the next jolt.
Created by Scott Frank (the movies Out of Sight, Logan) and produced by Steven Soderbergh, it takes an old western template and swivels it but keeps a core story of ruthless outlaws and one good man. The thing about the one good man is that he is protected by a woman who is not so much an outlaw as she is outlawed – banished from the local town.
That's Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery, as far from Downton Abbey as she can get), a widow living with her son and mother-in-law on a small dusty ranch outside a dilapidated New Mexico mining town. She's been banished for actions that are hard to pin down, but she likes it that way. As the story opens, an injured guy, Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell) turns up in the night. She shoots him but doesn't kill him.
Turns out Roy is on the run. Once part of the Griffen gang, he stole the loot from a spectacularly bloody raid on a train carrying a lot of money, and made off. Now, Frank Griffen (Jeff Daniels), notorious for his savagery and pomposity, is looking for him. In fact, he'll kill, maim and burn towns to the ground in search of Roy.
All of this narrative unfolds while anchored in and round that bedraggled town of La Belle. Almost all the inhabitants are women. They're a subversive bunch. Some have women partners, some are starting families with the local Native Indians. They don't care what the outside word thinks.
There's the local sheriff, Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), who's slowly going blind, a debilitation that followed the death of his wife. Also on the scene is the sheriff's old friend, Marshall John Cook (Sam Waterston), an old-time lawman who plans to help the sheriff fight off the Griffen gang. Complicating matters is the fact that the town might have riches under the soil and there's big money in that. If things work out, the women of this town might get to create their own kind of community.
Thus a complex scenario is created – seething with tensions about economic and political supremacy and teeming with unorthodox, rebellious figures. Even while the story moves slowly, the strength of the characters and the cast carry Godless along with some glory.
Among them is Merritt Wever, who won an Emmy for playing nurse Zoey Barkow in Nurse Jackie and has been outstanding as Elizabeth in New Girl and as Denise on The Walking Dead last season. Here, she's Mary Agnes, sister-in-law to the sheriff, and she doesn't give a damn. A snarling source of wisdom on many topics, Mary Agnes likes women and guns and pours scorn on "child bearing and caregiving." She's good with the gun, too. Jeff Daniels is excellent as the outrageously vicious Frank Griffen. A scene in which he marches into a church service on horseback and lectures the congregation on the suffering they will endure if they harbour Roy Goode is deliciously done.
Dockery is a revelation, too, inhabiting the steely Alice with full-throttle force. This is an instance of an English actor embracing a classic American figure with total pleasure and great skill.
Godless is a dreamlike western. It has familiar elements. Gunfights in saloons and desperadoes robbing trains. But it evolves slowly into a questioning look at the western myth – the role of hard-rock Christianity in excusing terrible violence is touched upon. Also, it ensures that women are not forgotten in this West. They are its soul. Gorgeously made to offer stunning vistas of beauty and defilement, it is brooding, inventive and laconic. Remember "laconic" because it isn't made for the fast-paced pleasure of frantic binge-watching.