Netflix’s Godless delivers everything the Coen brothers’ new project once promised

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

The first episode of Godless, a Western miniseries co-produced by Steven Soderbergh, Casey Silver, and writer-director-creator Scott Frank. A two-time Oscar nominee (for writing the screenplay to Soderbergh’s Out of Sight and for co-writing the Wolverine movie Logan), Frank has a gift for investing seemingly tawdry, juvenile stories with complicated characters and emotions.

Godless is set in and around the fading mid-19th century mining community of La Belle, New Mexico, which has been almost entirely run by women since a disaster wiped out most of the men. Michelle Dockery plays rancher Alice Fletcher, who’s caught between the law and the lawless when she shoots fugitive robber Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), then allows him to heal on her property, even though he’s the target of multiple manhunts. Chapter one of this seven-part series, “An Incident at Creede,” introduces the other major players in this grim, violent frontier drama, including self-doubting sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), his strong-willed widowed sister Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever, who won an Emmy for this role), and Roy’s vicious outlaw mentor, Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels, who also won an Emmy).

Why watch now?

Because The Ballad of Buster Scruggs debuts on Netflix this weekend.

It was huge news back in 2017 when the writer-director-editor-producer team of Joel and Ethan Coen — two of the most respected American filmmakers of the past three decades — struck deals first with Annapurna’s television division and then Netflix to create their first TV series. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was described back then as a six-episode Western anthology, telling different kinds of stories about settlers, cowboys, bandits, and prospectors, given the Coens’ usual layering of pitch-black humor, philosophical musing, and cockeyed poetry. But a year later, right as the fall film festival season was about to begin, the brothers and their backers made the surprise announcement that Buster Scruggs would no longer be a TV show, but instead a 133-minute movie, competing for year-end awards.

Reportedly, the Coens had always considered Buster Scruggs a single script, with its various parts assembled in a specific order. As the release date approached, they became wary of the idea that a Netflix subscriber could choose to watch any of their six stories out of context. Whatever the rationale for the change, it doesn’t seem to have affected the end product, an episodic film with a first-rate cast, including Zoe Kazan, Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, Tyne Daly, Tom Waits, and James Franco. It’s a meditation on death and loneliness, rendered in a variety of rich tones.

Photo: Netflix

For those who were looking forward to binge-watching a Western series on Netflix created by accomplished American auteurs, well… it’s time they got around to watching Godless. Though critically acclaimed and award-winning, Godless became another largely forgotten Netflix prestige drama not long after it debuted, almost exactly one year ago. Maybe it arrived too late in 2017 after TV buffs had locked down their favorites of the year. Maybe because it’s a finite series, subscribers haven’t felt pressure to catch up with it before another season arrives. Maybe the episode lengths (mostly over an hour) scared some folks away.

Regardless of the reason, there are lots of potential Godless fans out there — people who’ve loved Frank’s work in the past or who respect Soderbergh’s seal of approval. If nothing else, those people should want to watch this show’s cast, which is as well-stocked as Buster Scruggs’. From Wever’s feisty turn as a tomboyish gal who becomes a civic leader to smaller character roles for the likes of Kim Coates, Erik LaRay Harvey, and Kayli Carter (the latter also so good in the recent Netflix movie Private Life), Godless has someone absolutely magnetic on the screen in every scene.

Photo: Netflix

Who it’s for

Fans of adult Westerns and American mythology.

Three sequences in “An Incident at Creede” stand out as wild and wonderful enough to hook the average viewer on Godless. In the first, Frank Griffin leads his mob into a terrified small town and rides his horse right into the middle of a church service, delivering an impromptu sermon about the Christian torments the congregation will suffer if they cross him. In the second, a mute Roy Goode watches as a snake sidewinds into Alice’s house, headed toward a baby before Roy pulls out a pistol and shoots it dead. And in the third, the authoritative Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston) fills in Sheriff Bill on the trouble Frank and Roy have caused across the territory, in a spellbinding tale that dissolves into a handsomely shot train-robbery flashback.

This is what Godless is: a collection of tall tales, nail-biting life-or-death suspense scenes, and “come to Jesus” conversations, delivered by top-shelf actors, in a location that at times feels like the last outpost of civilization in a forbidding landscape. In its own way, Godless is also a Western anthology — and an excellent one.

Where to see it

Netflix. The service is low on other classic movie and TV Westerns, though it does currently feature the modern Western / police procedural series Longmire and the Oscar-winning Unforgiven, as well as the edgier recent Western films The Hateful Eight, Slow West, and Mohawk.

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