A revisionist western in the gritty vein of “Lonesome Dove,” “Godless” is a limited series with a gender-based twist, beautifully shot in a sweeping widescreen format. Buoyed by strong performances and its knowing embrace of an under-utilized genre, this seven-part event slows in the middle but yields the kind of home stretch for which it’s worth giving thanks.
Writer-director Scott Frank, working with producer Steven Soderbergh, exhibit an obvious love for films like “Shane” and “Red River” in the concept, which is, on its face, pretty simple: A notorious gunfighter, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), breaks with the patriarch of the gang with which he rode, headed by the ruthless Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels). For good measure, Goode made like Robin Hood – robbing the robbers – and put a bullet in Griffin before taking off, prompting a search to find him and auguring an inevitable showdown.
Intriguingly, Goode takes refuge in a town dominated by women, who lost most of their menfolk to a mine collapse years earlier. Toughened by having to go it alone, these are no wallflowers, despite attempts to treat them as such by a corporate interest that wants to take over.
Goode lands at the home of a widowed mom, Alice Fletcher (“Downton Abbey’s” Michelle Dockery), bonding with her teenage son. The local sheriff, meanwhile, Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), is clearly sweet on her, while disrespected by some for his reluctance to draw his gun.
“I’ve been known to kill a man or two,” he says, which sounds more like an excuse than a boast.
There are, in other words, lots of familiar themes blowing around in “Godless,” which derives its name from Griffin’s twisted philosophizing – imbued with a calm certainty about how he is, or isn’t, going to die – when he’s not doing terrible things.
Taking advantage of its premium setting, the series opens with a scene of utter devastation, and the violence, when it happens, is unflinching and bloody. Yet Frank also plays with viewer expectations, while throwing in characters as textured as its panoramic vistas (the filming was in New Mexico), like Sam Waterston as the lawman on Griffin’s trail and a terrific Merritt Wever (“Nurse Jackie”) as McNue’s tough, self-sufficient sister.
As noted, there is a sense of padding in the midsection, filling in the miniseries format with character backstories of unequal interest and strength. (The project was originally written more than a decade ago as a three-hour movie before being expanded for TV, and the stitching shows.)
The western dominated TV in its infancy, but with a few notable exceptions (see “Deadwood”) has been less popular in recent years, in part because it generally attracts an older audience. Netflix’s premium, ad-free niche makes that less of a concern.
“Godless” might have benefited from a slighter quicker pace, but its various plots come together to create a finish that simultaneously feels unconventional, satisfying and – most significantly in the current wild west of bingeing – well worth the ride.
“Godless” premieres Nov. 22 on Netflix.