Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
Godless may well have made its mark as one of the great western mini-series even without the presence of Frank Griffin, perhaps the best video villain named Frank since Blue Velvet. This Frank doesn’t inhale nitrous oxide; instead, he inhales hatred, and spits it out in the form of malice, viciousness and a deep desire for vengeance. Frank is grizzled, bearded, missing an arm and willing to destroy entire towns if it helps him find the ‘son’ he believes betrayed him. With each screen appearance, one has the feeling that he is a rattlesnake, tail whisking, poised to strike.
Jeff Daniels plays Frank in a performance so convincing that I failed to recognize him until I looked at the credits. I’ve seen Daniels in a dozen different things, including two of my favorites, Pleasantville and The Newsroom, but his performance here is completely fresh.
That’s right. Frank Griffin is also Bill, the dim, amicable and artistically aspiring soda shop owner from Pleasantville. It doesn’t seem possible that two more different aspects could exist in the same aggregation of carbon and oxygen atoms, but there you have it. It really shows Jeff Daniels’ range and why he just took home an Emmy as Best Supporting Actor in limited series or movie for his work in Godless.
Godless is very nearly the quintessential western. Even the title is evocative of another great western: The Unforgiven. The character tropes are all here: along with Frank, you have the stout-hearted prairie widow, the kindly yet determined whorehouse Madam, the simple deputy, the washed-up but still formidable sheriff, the arrogant and soulless mining company rep, and the old marshal who is chasing Frank. And of course, you have the mysterious stranger (Jack O’Connell as Roy Goode – and yes, the Good Guy is named Goode.)
O’Connell is an alumnus of Skins, a show that shed brilliant young British actors the way Jon Stewart shed comedy talk show hosts. And he plays the part to perfection. The plot also sports a strong western motif: With slow, building suspense punctuated by both violence and tenderness, growing to nearly unbearable heights before the explosive climax.
Even though the people and events may seem familiar, there is nothing formulaic about this series. The writing and direction is impeccable, the acting strong throughout, and the pacing nearly perfect.
Westerns are pretty rare these days, and most are tepid and trite remakes. Two of the better ones recently featured a western setting, but weren’t actually westerns at all (Rango and Westworld).
But Godless is as pure a western as you can get, and one of the most perfect justify of the genre ever made – a compelling reminder of the reasons these movies were so popular for so many decades.
Bryan Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Canada and raised in London. He has lived in the Mount Shasta area since 1990, which he regards as the finest place on earth. Jamieson has spent the past 25 years as a graphic layout technician, web designer and writer, with over a thousand essays, a dozen short stories, and two novels – Ice Fall and Snow Fall – to his credit. In addition to his wife of 30-plus years, he normally lives with a dog and several cats, none of whom are impressed by him. Reach him through The Electric Review.