Godless (2017)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

Good westerns are hard to find in the modern world, but even though most of them do not do well, financially, entertainment continues to churn them out. Godless has a unique approach and setting, and has the good bones of a western but also suffers from a few notable flaws.

Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) wants blood. The boy he raised into a man, Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell), has skipped town with the stolen payroll and left his arm hanging by a sinew. As he busts into the local doctor's office and demands the man take it off, he swears to end the man's life. Goode, meanwhile, stumbles into the ranch yard of Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), a local widow alienated from the almost all-female mining town in the foothills of Colorado. She, her half-Indian son, and his grandmother live on the ranch with intentions of taming and selling horses.

Though she puts a bullet through Goode, and he knows he had best ride fast for Mexico to escape Griffin and his thirty men, once she sees his natural ease with horses, Alice asks him to stay on for a time, until he breaks them to ride. The local sheriff, however, is not pleased to see him... and decides to set out on his own, to hunt down the Griffin gang, despite his increasingly bad eyesight. This leaves his tough-as-nails sister in charge of a town that, sooner or later, will need to defend itself.

Many smaller stories play out against the larger narrative; the deputy tries to romance the daughter of a Buffalo soldier, the sheriff's sister struggles to articulate her feelings for a whore-turned-schoolteacher, Alice's son finds a father figure in Goode, and a Marshall (Sam Waterston) tracks Griffin, hopeful he can kill him. Flashbacks reveal the stories of everyone involved. It's a meticulous, well-paced western with a few slow moments but enough interest to keep the momentum going. The acting ranges from excellent (Daniels sends a chill up your spine as a seemingly kind psychopath) to mediocre. There are sinister twists along the way, and the script does not tell you everything or even the reasons behind certain decisions ... which at times, I found frustrating. It also doesn't tell you what happens in some instances, leaving it to your imagination.

The setting is solid, the music memorable, and the costumes display all the grit necessary. It left me unsatisfied on an emotional level, simply because the formula demands a bloodbath before the conclusion and you know going in your favorites will be dead before the end credits. Two things kept occurring to me; one is the rampant lack of appreciation for life as the gang slaughtered innocent people for no real reason at all, and the second was the repeated female nudity. In a society saturated at the moment with accusations of predatory behavior from the entertainment industry toward women, it made me wonder if obligatory nudity as a selling point, in a western epic written by men, isn't exploitation of its female cast of a familiar and disappointing kind.

Sexual Content:
Two rapes (semi-graphic; in one, Indians slice into a woman's garments and bare her breasts); a reference to another rape (a shaking, terrified woman wakes up beside a man); a man talks about being forced to watch a rape; references to a woman's former profession as a prostitute; a fully naked woman tries to shoot some men; another fully naked woman rides a horse through town; we see a woman's bare backside in a mirror (she's dressed only in an apron); we see a man's bare backside as he emerges from a tent; many paintings of bare-breasted / nude women in a house; a subplot involves two women who are in love (they kiss and touch one another); a woman bares her breasts and kisses a man (fade-out).
 
Language:
Around 20 f-words; Jesus' name appears in vain at least 40 times; about 20 uses of GD, other profanities.
 
Violence:
Gory and frequent. Men are shot graphically (heads explode with brain matter and blood; chests erupt with blood; bullets riddle shoulders, arms, chests); a doctor cuts a man's arm off -- we see it hanging by a few sinewy threads from his arm; the gang mass-slaughters everyone that gets in their way, leaving camp sites strewn with bodies after blasting men, women, and children away; men take knives to the chest; the final episode features a prolonged, graphic shoot-out; we see a woman shoot a bird / the impact; several horses are shot in the head (not often on camera). A man strips his adult daughter naked to the waist (side nudity) and beats her mercilessly with a switch.

Other:
A dead man appears as a guide to 'haunt' someone on a quest; references to Indian "magic" and curses.