Sunday, August 12, 2018

August's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman GODLESS: chaos and love in the Old West

An elegy is a memorial poem expressing loss and grief; this multi-Emmy-nominated, limited-series on Netflix eulogizes our myth of the unbroken West as a romance of pain not glory. A long tale in seven parts, it is elegiac, filled with sadness. Scott Frank is the prolific screen-writer (Dead Again, Get Shorty, Walk Among the Tombstones) and director of this different Western, executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh. It’s got its own spin on the spaghetti, memorializing Western imagery with solemnity and a lovely mournful score. But despite sad events, the story is garnished with enough droll wit and good will to make it uplifting, not depressing, once you know the characters and buy into the premise. Author Frank initially sparked MeToo enthusiasm by winding his narrative around the widowed women of the town of La Belle, New Mexico, a territory in the 1880’s. Their men were killed in a ghastly mine accident; now they are building a church and longing for their new preacher to bring God. La Belle’s ladies are doers, however, not MeToo-ers. Such losses often occurred during westward expansion; they are a typical cross-section — a rare few leaders and many timid followers.

Rather, the over-arching plot features Roy Goode, (played by gifted young Brit, Jack O’Connell, of Unbroken and Skins) and his messy bond with sociopathic villain Frank Griffin, below (Jeff Daniels of The Newsroom and The Looming Tower), who obviously got a kick out of this bi-polar-ish outlaw and is now Emmy-nominated for the role). The grudge match frames the series but does not camouflage its appeal as an ensemble piece with many characters to like.

Others are Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones), two more Brits who lose their British accents in the West. Among the American cast are Sam Waterston as sensible, honorable Marshal John Cook (below, center) and real Texas cowboy, Scoot McNairy (Fargo, Halt and Catch Fire) as La Belle’s Sheriff Bill McNeu. Quiet-voiced Merritt Wever (Walking Dead, Nurse Jackie) is Maggy, who wears her dead husband’s pants, his mayoral job, and some authority around town. Her pretty lover Callie was a prostitute, now the town’s teacher. La Belle’s children go to class at Magdalena’s House of Rapture, the town brothel, closed since the mine accident (in the second picture from top: Maggy is left foreground; Callie, center). There are miscellaneous others, such as a single-minded newspaperman from Taos who is feverish on the Roy Goode/Frank Griffin soap opera, a German woman artist who rides her horse around town naked except for boots (“airing her private parts”), and a nun who does good works.

The dominant character is the landscape, its enormity subjugating people and rickety wooden buildings. Everyone and thing is dwarfed by vast plains, distant hills, and scrub. The pictures here don’t reflect the beauty of its stark expansiveness or the enveloping dust, fog, smoke, and clouded light. Writer/director Frank (below) and photographer, Steven Meizler, stage every image to leverage our imaginings of Western myth — the solitary rider against big sky, bandits riding en masse toward trouble, guns twirling into holsters.

Flashbacks, most drained of color, reveal back stories like the feud between Roy and Frank, which advances leisurely toward a final show-down. Frank, who can be kind as he is murderous, adopted Roy as a boy and lovingly taught him outlawry. One day the crimes piled up too high for Roy (good at his core) and he rides away from his mentor, who starts a war of revenge. (“Frank’s out there spilling blood from hell-to-breakfast trying to make me feel bad for leaving him.”) After a heist by Frank’s gang, Roy absconds with the mine payroll Frank stole off a train going through Creede, hoping Frank will follow him and the money away from taking revenge on the town. Roy shoots up Frank’s arm, which will be cut off and carried around decaying, Frank’s nauseating relic of Roy’s desertion. But Frank and his men do return to Creede, hang, shoot, or burn everyone, and continue their blood thirsty fugue hunting Roy and anyone who has harbored him.

Frank calls himself a preacher and wears a cleric’s collar. One Sunday in a nameless town, he rides his horse up a church aisle to the altar where he expounds to the assembled: “You know I don’t ever want to come back here and burn this house of the Lord down to the ground. So let’s bow our heads and pray that Roy Goode don’t never show up here. But that if he does, none of you well-meaning souls take him in. Unless you want to suffer like our Lord Jesus suffered for all of us. Amen.”

In-between the debacle at Creede and the final shootout in La Belle, are stories of daily life in the environs, moving sympathetically among characters whom we come to know, backing and filling (including how Frank got so twisted), until the saga finishes perfectly with Roy’s breathtaking long ride home.

 There is Alice Fletcher (Dockery), a Boston woman who owns a horse farm and is come to her circumstance following several horrific events. A widow, she is mother to son Truckee (below), a precocious observer of fact (Samuel Marty), and daughter-in-law to Paiute medicine woman, Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal). There is sexual tension as Alice’s bond grows with Roy, whom she takes on to tame her wild herd and who schools Truckee on hanging on to the saddle and dealing discreetly with dolts you feel like killing. 

Dockery and O’Donnell make you watch their every moment; they are masters of the unsaid, perfectly-communicated. But Roy needs to ride away to his brother in California before his presence draws Frank to La Belle or Alice’s farm.

There’s Mary-Agnes, ‘Maggie’, mayor of LaBelle, as she tries and fails to outmaneuver the Quicksilver Mining Syndicate’s silvery-tongued talker who easily extorts La Belle’s mine from the ladies’ town council; also Maggie grieves, believing Callie is cheating on her. Blackdom, a nearby town, is filled with famed Buffalo soldiers-turned-farmers, where young Whitey Winn (Brodie-Sangster), La Belle’s self-important, naive Sheriff’s deputy, courts Louise (Jessica Sula). Her father won’t tolerate this ‘white boy and his white troubles’ in Blackdom; he thrashes her. Lovesick Whitey confesses to Maggie, “I feel like I sprained my damn heart.”

La Belle’s Sheriff Bill McNue, below (McNairy), is eating humble pie. His eyesight is failing and with it his reputation as an able lawman. He wants to get together with Alice and looks out for her interests, but the time feels wrong. For the duration he’s on the trail of Frank Griffin — an unlikely power imbalance that makes the death-struggle between Capt. Ahab and Moby Dick look like a fight between equals.

Why ‘Godless’ you wonder. Frank advises a wagon train of traveling Norwegians (whom he lets pass by, graciously, except for forcing sex on one woman): ”There ain’t no higher-up around here…This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the blade and the rifle…Godless country. The same God that made you and me also made the rattlesnake. That just don’t make no sense. All man can count on is his self. That’s the truth.”

However, acts of violence are intercut with stories of warmth and kindness. Whenever a person or a horse is shot or women raped, the narrative shifts to something good — everyday small moments of people living their lives. Alice sits at her rough-hewn candle-lit table patiently helping Roy sound out his letters and write his name. He has been civilizing her horses; she is teaching him to read. In that moment in a dark saloon, the kindly, sensible Marshal Cook (our loved Jack McCoy of “Law and Order”) is suddenly shot dead. Frank was waiting for him.

 An apostle of chaos, Frank’s kindness is a deceptive part of his mayhem. Following the murder of Marshal Cook, Frank and his gang happen by a house filled with smallpox-ridden folk, tended by a young woman, herself afflicted. Frank stays to help her with the dying and the piled-up dead. (No one is all bad.) But some have called the violence in ‘Godless’ gratuitous. I don’t think so. Here, intermittent violence is on purpose. The law is needed. Scott Frank shows us with precisely-deployed violence that our myth of the heroes who conquered the West is more a story of the interregnum before statehood, of cruelty and loss rather than greatness.

The absence of civil order predisposes the random violence; events bang into each other without consequence except to cluster and predispose more violence (a pattern called ‘chaos theory’). But statehood will come when the population reaches 100,000, bringing order and maybe God. Back in the day, however, the women of LaBelle get on with defense of their town. Alice is at Maggie’s side and the rest of the town’s womenfolk rain bullets down on Frank’s gang. Roy Goode chases Frank out of town to their final showdown.

At La Belle’s cemetery where the mourners have assembled to bury their dead, a stranger appears. He humbly moves through the crowd to the front with a book (not pushy with a horse like Frank) and reads a famous poem that brings some peace to those who grieve, (and these folks need it to have lived in those times and ably passed down their genes to the present day). Here is the moving elegy offered by the new Pastor Moore (below):

 *Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch….. A thing for fools this, and a holy thing. A holy thing to love. For your life has lived in me, Your laugh once lifted me. Your word was gift to me. To remember this brings painful joy. Tis a human thing, love. A holy thing To love what death has touched. *-----Judah Halevi, medieval physician and poet

Note 1: See the splendid title sequence to each episode of Godless HERE.  
Note 2: Scott Frank describes the mapping and staging of the final battle in La Belle, illustrated with clips from the film and analysis by Frank and Merrit Wever, as reported by the Huffington Post HERE.

The above post was written by 
our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

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