A long time ago the Western movie star John Wayne explained to me that Western movies weren’t really expressions of what happened in America’s frontier. Instead, they were more akin to classical Greek dramas, depictions of mythic forces set against a heroic backdrop of sandstone bluffs and sagebrush-dotted mesas.
He didn’t say it in those particular words, but I got the gist. And, he didn’t over-intellectualize it as a writer might while remembering his younger days working on the movie “Rooster Cogburn and the Lady” (1975). I think he said it mainly to appease his own conscience because he knew I wasn’t just a young Indian plucked from Central Casting, and because his own co-star was Katharine Hepburn, who was as legendary as he, but also brainy, and tough-as-nails.
The characterization stuck with me, though, and especially took on more significance while watching the excellent new Netflix Western, “Godless.”
The story — created, written and directed by Scott Frank (who wrote the screenplays for “The Wolverine” and “Logan”) plays out more like a seven-hour feature film doled out in one-hour increments. Shot digitally in a wide-screen style format and framed by cinematographer Steven Meizler to show off New Mexico’s rugged vistas, it is a classic of the genre, but with a twist that works within its context.
It concerns the hunt between a morally conflicted bible-quoting bad man named Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and a younger man he took under his wing many years ago named Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell). Frank has gathered around him a small army of other bad men who, as the series opens, have done a horrifying thing in Creede, Colo. But, that incident was too much for Roy, so he took off and made his way to a ranch owned by a woman named Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery).
Alice is having a hard time keeping things together while raising a half-Indian son named Truckee (Samuel Marty) and helped by a relative named Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal), so when Roy shows up he is seen as a mysterious stranger who she should be suspicious of, but who seems to offer a depth of character that interests her.
They live near the town of La Belle, a town populated mostly by women. Although the sheriff, Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) and his deputy Whitey Winn (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), plus a handful of other men, pretend they are in charge it’s the women who run things. They had to. All their husbands, brothers and sons died in a terrible mine tragedy some years back and now they’ve taken charge. We know all this primarily through the eyes of Mary Agnes McNue (the excellent Merritt Wever), the sheriff’s sister and widow of the town’s mayor.
Into this mix rides a corporate representative who basically wants to take over LaBelle, buying out everyone for a stake in the town’s mine. To enforce his plan, he’s brought with him his own gang of bad men as well. And to help immortalize all of this, is the flamboyant editor of a newspaper in Taos, N.M. (chuckle, chuckle).
As the story unfolds, and because this is a mini-series, we get to know each of these characters, their histories, their lives and loves much like reading a rich-with-detail novel. This is not based on a true tale, although there are some details that are gleaned from Western lore. Northern New Mexico is certainly rich with history, but in the 1880s there was nothing like the way things work out in “Godless.” In that way, it is a myth, just like you’d expect as told by a crusty yarnspinner by a campfire while watching the coals burn down.
“Godless” is not rated but does contain pervasive language, some graphic violence, sexual situations and nudity.
Its seven one-hour episodes are all available on the Netflix online video streaming service via subscription.
Also showing in Taos
The following was compiled from promotional materials.
MPAA rating: Not rated
Movies at the TCA
With global food shortages on the horizon, forward-thinking chefs, environmentalists and food scientists are turning toward an unexpected source of protein: insects. “Bugs” is an artful, thoughtful new documentary that provides a perfect entry point to insect cuisine.
For the past three years, a team from Copenhagen-based Nordic Food Lab, made up of chefs and researchers Josh Evans, Ben Reade and Roberto Flore, has been traveling the world to learn what some of the two billion people who already eat insects have to say. In “Bugs,” film director Andreas Johnsen follows them as they forage, farm, cook and taste insects with communities in Europe, Australia, Mexico, Kenya, Japan and beyond.
During their journey they encounter everything from revered termite queens and desert-delicacy honey ants to venomous giant hornets and long-horned grasshoppers trapped using powerful floodlights – which sometimes cause their operators blindness.
Throughout the team’s experiences and conversations in the field, at the lab, at farm visits and international conferences, some hard questions start to emerge. If industrially produced insects become the norm, will they be as delicious and as beneficial as the ones in diverse, resilient ecosystems and cuisines around the world? And who will actually benefit as insects are scaled up?
This film will be screened at 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday (Dec. 11-13).
Movies at the TCA film series, Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. For tickets and additional information, call the Taos Center for the Arts at (575) 758-2052 or visit tcataos.org.