Review: 'The Harder They Fall' (2021) Dir. Jeymes Samuel
Director Jeymes Samuel helps shake up a predominantly all-white genre of cowboys, lawmen and rogues; an African-American cast lead the way for a fresh look at the Wild West...
Outlaw Nat Love (Majors) has forged a life devoted to one thing; to bring down the cold-hearted killer Rufus Buck (Elba). Buck commands the Rufus Buck Gang, riding with equally dangerous figures such as Trudy Smith (King) and Cherokee Bill (Stanfield).
Love brings together a few people he can trust, including old flame Stagecoach Mary (Beetz), Jim Beckwourth (Cyler) and Sherriff Bass Reeves (Lindo), to traverse the dangerous Old West and hunt down Buck who has been spring from prison.
Love tries to make good on his past by building bridges with those closest to him, all the while motivated by revenge as a dangerous cat-and-mouse game ensures between him and Buck, where only one man will be left standing when the smoke settles...
From a bold opening title card that makes it clear this is fictional, but based on real people who populated the Old West, we are in very familiar territory for the Western genre. The diegetic noise of birds, buzzards and horses, open ranges and small isolated huts and farms. From then, we have the clicking spurs of cowboy boots, gold six-shooter pistols in hip-holsters, greatcoats and fedoras. It's a bold, confident and brutal introduction to a thrilling genre, but this time fronted by a predominantly all Africa-American cast and brave director who know just how to handle storytelling on and off the camera.
This is not the Lee Van Cleef / John Wayne / Clint Eastwood style Westerns you've been brought up with. It's a Western that now embraces and shines light on the African-American lawmen, thieves, mail-carriers, gang members and all-round heroes and villains who helped influence and shape American history in their own way. They carry a brilliant amount of established sass, strength, sex-appeal and stature; it all helps to shine a new light on these people who are often always side-lined in modern Westerns with people of colour used as sidekicks, slaves or bad guys. This time, the white cast are in much more familiar roles such as American soldiers and those in positions of capitalist power.
The cast are some of the best talent in the industry, and they give a real depth to their foul-mouthed characters, not simply cardboard representations. Dealing with hurt, loss, morality and greed is all part of their journey.
They Harder The Fall tells a simple story of a vengeful Jonathan Majors who has made it his life's work to build up a gang - including the lovely Zazie Beetz and Edi Gathegi - and hunt down and take down the rogue Idris Elba and his gang. Classic good vs evil, but with a few twists and turns and personal motivations thrown into the mix. Majors is Nat Love, a man born out of tragedy and has only lived for one thing in his life, never really knowing how to let go demons of the past and forge a life for himself, despite riding with good people. Elba is our ne'er-do-well Rufus Buck, a hulking, silent leader who commands a ruthless gang overseen by the bloodthirsty Regina King, who steals her scenes and is one of more memorable characters in this busy roster of talent.
The narrative is laced with a very dangerous edge thanks to players like Elba and King who make it clear from the start they are very dangerous people, and you actually care about the ones trying to do the right thing and avoid running fowl of the gunslingers. Stand-out performances come from the foul-mouthed energy of RJ Cyler, always aiming to be the fastest gun-slinger in the West no matter who he crossed, and King herself as Trudy Smith.
In the 2hrs 20min run-time, the story does sag a little sadly and the energy wains, but it's the characters who make this watchable for the most part, and you wish they were involved in a little more of what we would want in a Western over the amount of time talking and setting up exposition. It's not something that ruins the overall experience, but from the amount of understanding Samuel clearly has for the genre, you are left wishing he could have pushed things a little further.
You've got expansive panoramic shots of wide-open country, framed by far reaching mountains peppered with snow, steam locomotives being chased down on horseback and pistols ringing out through shanty towns. The sets are as authentic and rustic as you'd expect, with no expense spared in replicating what we've come to expect from the Old West in sun-baked glory.
There is little that cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. fails to capture to present the beauty of this genre; beauty mixed with the isolation, simplicity and simple ethics of the era our cast live in without frills and allowing us to take in everything we see and where we are put. A unique score by Jeymes Samuel also incorporates a number of modern songs that work to reflect the mood, vibe and messages of the story and work to compliment the underlying culture of our leads.
The iconography of a Western is here as expected, but presented with a great amount of style and reliance on characters over simple action. There is stylised violence throughout, something you may not expect to see in a Western, but it doesn't hold back on the brutality and realism of the period; smashing out teeth, spitting out blood and putting holes in people's heads is part and parcel of staking your claim in the kill-or-be-killed environment. Samuel also has our leads address the balance of race and white power, when such power is targeted for a bank robbery in a town that is, literally, white. Since race played a huge part in the formation of America, and still does today, this is a nice inclusion and exploration of the divide that was present.
Yet by the time our final act comes, you get everything you've wanted. Shoot-outs, explosions, stand-offs, quick draws, bad guys falling from roof tops. It's thrilling and ticks all the boxes you want to see. The Harder They Fall is as much a Western as anything Sergio Leone has given us, fusing elements of Blaxploitation cinema but for a totally new generation and society.
A stylish and slick new era of the Western that is full of attitude and one of the best in recent years, thanks to a cast and crew who know just what they want to deliver and how.
'The Harder They Fall' is an Overbrook Entertainment production