I just finished watching this Netflix mini-series. It is a western, a genre that I am partial to. The main arc of the story is similar to that of the classic western Shane where a mysterious gunfighter weary of the life he has led and seeking to escape his past arrives in a small town and takes a job as a hired hand on a family farm. But he cannot escape his past.
The mini-series lasts a total of 7.5 hours spread over seven episodes and tells the story of a mining town called La Belle in New Mexico in 1882 where an explosion in the silver mine two years earlier had killed nearly all the town’s able-bodied men, leaving just women and children and a few older men. While the women took over the running of the town, the lack of revenue from the mines caused financial distress.
Enter an injured man named Roy Goode who arrives at the farm of Alice Fletcher, a widow who runs the farm with her young son and mother-in-law. Whereas in the older film the backstory of Shane is never revealed, in this film we get Goode’s story told in flashbacks. He was an orphan who as a young boy was taken under the wing of Frank Griffin, the leader of a large gang of vicious robbers and murderers who think nothing of massacring entire towns in pursuit of their goals. But after growing up, Goode has a falling out with Griffin and takes off with their money. The bulk of the film deals with Griffin pursuing Goode, letting it be widely known that he will destroy any town that harbors him.
But the story also involves a new mining company that seeks to take control of the shuttered mine and the town, promising to bring in new men to work the mines and provide security for the residents. Of course, the catch is that they want to take 90% of the revenue from the mine in exchange but the leaders of the town, now all women, see no alternative but to vote to accept this, despite the mayor wanting to give only 50%.
I enjoyed the series. Since I do not watch much TV, almost all the actors were unfamiliar to me, which tends to be a good thing in enabling the suspension of belief that one needs to get really engaged with a film. The only actors I recognized were Sam Waterston (who has a relatively small role but sports a huge mustache) and Jeff Daniels who plays Griffin. Griffin wears a clerical collar and is prone to spouting vaguely biblical phrases even as he kills anyone who crosses him. He also says that he has seen the manner of his own death and this makes him preternaturally calm even in dangerous situations where there is gunfire all around him, because he thinks that he will not die at that time since it does not correspond to his vision.
Apart from Daniels, the main actors are Jack O’Connell as Goode, Michelle Dockery as Fletcher, Scoot McNairy as Bill McNue the local sheriff who is slowly losing his sight and wants to capture Griffin as his last hurrah before going blind, and Merritt Wever as his sister Mary Agnes who was the wife of the town mayor and in the wake of his death in the mine, took over his job as well as his clothes and his guns. While all these actors whom I had never seen before did fine jobs, it was Wever who really stood out, with the scenes in which she appeared being the most watchable.
There were some problems such as inconsistencies in the timeline revealed by the flashbacks. I also felt that the storyline involving a nearby farm run by former Buffalo soldiers was unsatisfying. The film’s trailer and promotions give a somewhat misleading impression that this is a ‘feminist western’. While the town’s women do come into their own in the final episode, in terms of the time allocated in the series, more is devoted to the stories of Goode and Griffin than to the town of La Belle. Also, despite its title, this film is not really about religion. It takes its name from the west being considered a ‘godless country’ where power comes from the barrel of a gun. As Griffin says at one point, “The same god who made you and me also made the rattlesnake. It makes no sense.”
Here’s the trailer.