Scott Frank uses suspense masterfully as a subtle underlying energy while the story plays out. We are waiting for Griffin to find Roy, and at the same time living every moment with the other characters and their own equally important stories. Another impressive quality in this film is the time taken by director Scott Frank and cinematographer, Steven Meizler to stay on a character for a little longer than we see in most films or television series. That is to say, the character is allowed to sit with an emotion without movement or words, as the camera keeps rolling. The result is that we as the audience have time to process the scene more, and the character’s feelings in that moment. This stylized choice pays off with deeper moments of emotional realization and life in the characters.
Filmmakers out there probably noticed the excessive use of crane shots, especially in the first episode. A kind of modern take on John Fords’ wide scenic shots of desert bluffs and mountains. These generally didn’t work for me as the viewer. I found myself taken out of the scene by the self conscious shots. In a film so personal and intimate, I found them distracting. While Fords’ wide shots depicted a man versus nature visual dichotomy, Meizler’s seemed to be just for fun. The same can be said for the “Dutch Angles”, where a shot is tilted on its axis. They just didn’t work.
Nature as Conflict
It’s especially important for a film like Godless to use every sensory experience from the environment to enhance and help explain the characters’ experience. The wind is a particular kind of weather that can either help or hamper a character. For example, in one of the final scenes, at the end of the gun fight, Roy and Bill stand in the middle of the street as the dust swirls around them, making it almost impossible to see. The women standing on the roof peer out in frustration, trying to see who is left standing. The sound of the wind contains the silence of death around them. The wind has a life and beauty of its own, even when it touches the static horror inside it. The dry ground and dying crops show us how hard life was, while the never ending vistas promise the beauty of God’s work.
Godless is a film of images, both static and moving. The emphasis is placed on the feeling of a moment told to us by the image of it and little else. This is what filmmaking in its purest form, is about. Director Frank embraces this style of storytelling with the love one would have for a child. It is precious and beautiful. But when words are needed, he makes them count. Some are funny, mostly spoken by the character Mary Agnes. Some are gentle as when Callie tells Mary she loves her. And some are just cruel. But the best words are saved for the preacher, the real preacher, (played by Kansas City’s own, Chris Bylsma) who comes late to the events in the town, but does finally show up. They are worth repeating in entirety.
“It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch. A fearful thing to love, to hope, to dream, to be and oh, to lose…And a holy thing. A holy thing to love.
For your life is lived in me. Your laugh once lifted me. Your word was gift to me. To remember this brings painful joy! ‘Tis a human thing to love. A holy
thing – to love what death has touched.”