THE HARDER THEY FALL ½
2021, R, 139 mins.
Jonathan Majors as Nat Love / Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary / Idris Elba as Rufus Buck / Regina King as Trudy Smith / Delroy Lindo as Bass Reeves / LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill / Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett / Deon Cole as Wiley Escoe RJ Cyler as Jim Beckwourth
Directed by Jeymes Samuel / Written by Jeymes Samuel and Boaz Yakin
The Western genre is as old as the proverbial hills and has been literally done to death over the years, but what Netflix's THE HARDER THEY FALL does with it is pretty thankless.
sensationally realized Western that plays into its troupes, to be sure,
but like a hypodermic needle to the genre's heart it injects some much
needed stylistic freshness and innovation into the proceedings on top of
boasting one of the finest ensemble casts of this past year. It's a mishmash of multiple influences, ranging from old
school Spaghetti Westerns to 1970s blaxploitation to the type of throw
caution to the wind boldness of approach of a Quentin Tarantino, but
British musician turned director Jeymes Samuel (in his filmmaking debut
here) has finely crafted something special with his mostly all-black cast
Western. It might not be the
first of its ilk (see Mario Van Peebles 1993 offering POSSE), but it's
absolutely its most assured and savvy, especially on a level of pure genre
The film opens
with a title card: "While the events in this story are fictional,
these people existed." This is kind of akin to what Tarantino did with his loosely
fact based war thriller INGLOURIOUS
characters in THE HARDER THEY FALL are based on real life lawmen, cowboys,
and outlaws of 19th Century America, but the narrative thrust of the whole
piece has been dramatized with Samuel's own brand of transformative style,
even though it's set in a tangible part of our past. In
short, this is mostly a piece of pure make-believe, but what an inspired
piece of make-believe it is! Nat
Love (Jonathan Majors) is a cowboy hero that was once a slave in the Old
South that witnessed his parents brutally murdered right before his
childhood eyes by madman crook Rufus Buck (an eerily intimidating
and perfect cast Idris Elba). This
dude is so sick that he carved a crucifix into Nat's forehead as a symbol
of the day in question, which the lad will never, ever be able to shake,
even while looking at his reflection.
And you kind of just sense in these types of revenge westerns that
this boy will grow up and yearn to seek some serious comeuppance on the
sociopath that wronged him.
And, yes, Nat
does indeed grow up and into a fairly lethal and respected gunslinger
outlaw uniquely his own, with his motley crew of misfits being comprised
of Cuffee (Daniel Deadwyler) and (R.J. Cuyler).
Like all western gunslingers, he's got a lady that he left that he
still pines for in Mary (Zazie Beetz), who's now a singer in her own
saloon that lives and plays by her own rules and apart from her ex's
troublemaking ways. Concurrent
to this is the prison train transfer break out of Rufus himself, which is
orchestrated by his right-hand woman in Trudy Smith (a terrific Regina
King) and the faster than lightning quick draw man Cherokee Bill (LaKeith
Stanfield), which is one of the many finely orchestrated sequences in THE
HARDER THEY FALL. Trudy and
her posse ruthlessly board the speeding train, which is controlled by U.S.
Calvary and houses a chained down Rufus that's also being entombed in an
iron vault (this is the stuff of joyous comic book villain infamy).
After a standoff between Trudy's thugs and the military men (mostly
done with verbal sparring and threats), the latter gives in and lays down
their weapons and lets Rufus free...but then his team murders nearly all
of the servicemen before fleeing the train.
Rufus is a baddie that means business and definitely doesn't mess
around, and you know that Nat and his clan have their work cut out for
They say that
movies like this have heroes that are only as good as their villains, and
THE HARDER THEY FALL is absolutely no exception.
Majors - an actor with a remarkably bright future ahead - is such a
swaggering delight here as his headstrong hero in Nat, who not only
displays a determined fearlessness while in pursuit of his ultimate prey,
but also is a man haunted by the past nightmare of his parent's murder,
which fuels his rage. He's an
emotionally vulnerable, but physically lethal hero in equal dosages.
By comparison, Elba's Rufus casts an equally sizeable shadow over
the entire film as his soft spoken maniac that can kill a man with just so
much as a stare (Elba might be the best actor at portraying deeply
internalized fury with stillness and calm).
His number two in Regina King's Trudy is a fantastically rendered
creation as well, and within a few short introductory moments you gain an
immediate impression that this tough talking and no-nonsense woman is not
to be trifled with in any respect.
Unlike so many damsel in distress female personas that usually dominate
westerns Trudy is no helpless victim here. In many respects, she's
as scary as her boss.
It would be easy
to forget about the rest of this bravura cast, so let's not do that.
I've always found LaKeith Stanfield and all of its twitchy and
feverishly nervous characters that teeter on mental implosion to be
endlessly intriguing, but he kind of effectively plays against type here
as Cherokee Bill, who's a bloodthirsty killer that quietly boasts about
his killstreak while downplaying any word-of-mouth press that he actually
just sucker shoots his targets in the back for easy assassinations.
I also liked the feisty tenacity that Zazie Beetz brings to the
tables as well as her lounge singer that can absolutely hold her own in a
brawl or gun fight. And hey,
even the magnificent Delroy Lindo shows up here!
The actor was so unfairly marginalized and forgotten about during
Oscar time with his tour de force supporting turn in last year's Spike Lee
joint DA 5 BLOODS (also produced by
Netflix), and he appears here as a lawman with a code that gets caught
between all of the aforementioned parties. This underrated industry character actor here - as he's done
time and time again - proves that he can class up just about any film with
his sizeable screen presence alone.
On a directing
side, special props needs to be given to the filmmaking greenhorn in
Samuel (who also serves as co-writer here), and he acclimates himself to
tackling this genre (and dismantling it) with the poise and confidence of
a wily ol' veteran director. THE
HARDER THEY FALL is as visually dynamic and viscerally impactful as any Western
I've recently seen. Working
alongside cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., Samuel concocts a both a
stunning looking period film that echoes the beautiful panoramic vistas of
iconic westerns of yesteryear (they really know how to fill the widescreen
frame) while also infusing in it a whole new eye popping visual dynamism
that's thoroughly striking to behold. THE HARDER THEY FALL is hyper kinetic at times (some might
semi-accurately label it as music video-esque), but never obtrusively so
and not to the point where it betrays the aesthetic purity of classic
westerns of old. Samuel
proves here that he's an astute student of the genre inside and out, and
understands that his Western should look like masterful Westerns of
old, but he isn't about to religiously play within its outdated playbook.
There are a
handful of outstandingly choreographed sequences that stand out and put
Samuel on the map. We do get
all of the obligatory standoffs, quick draw battles, large scale gunfights
and fisticuffs, and horse and foot chases, but Samuel peppers all of the
moments with his breakneck, knockdown style that gives this film an
enjoyably anachronistic sensibility (on top of littering the film with
contemporary music and songs, this is also an unforgivably violent and
blood-soaked western that absolutely earns its R rating).
I even liked the in-your-face moments of visual satire too,
like a sly robbery scene set in a "white town" that's literally
covered in head to toe in...ultra harsh white tones.
Everything is white in this
town....like...everything. I think the juxtaposition
here of showing these black characters in this bleached out setting is
both amusing and sobering to the whole film's core messaging: The Western
genre has been for far too long a white's only club that rarely, if ever,
has featured any sizable minority characters of worthwhile interest...or
it has been a genre that contains virtually no examples with an all
minority cast. Sequences like
this have a deliberate blunt force level of hammering home ideas, to be
sure, and are anything but subtle, but Samuel is aggressively trying to
make a valid point here while trying to audaciously mix things up.
This white town sequence may seem wholly preposterous, but it does
rightfully serve up some thematic significance.
I always applaud it when filmmakers just go for it and take
And understanding that difference is a key first step moving forward.