What to Watch Verdict
'The Harder They Fall' breathes new life into the Old West with brutal flair. This is one ensemble cast you don't want to miss.
A reimagined old west that blends realism into the classic archetypes
Gorgeous visuals, painting-like production design
Three dimensional, powerful characters throughout
Some of the references are a touch obscure if you don’t watch westerns
The stakes in Redwood are a little too underdeveloped to pack the right punch in Elba’s final scene
British filmmaker Jeymes Samuel (aka The Bullitt) and co-writer Boaz Yakin tweak history and remix the well-trod tropes of the western genre in crafting Sameul's feature film debut, The Harder They Fall into a deceptively sophisticated revenge story. A period film has never looked so damn good.
This tale opens with an idyllic scene in a remote cabin. A pastor, his wife and son sit down to supper only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. A shadowy and dangerous stranger enters. A savvy use of camera angles and emotive body language sets the stage for what's clearly a moment of reckoning between the pastor and the unseen man. What follows leaves a young sweet-faced Nat Love (Anthony Naylor Jr.) orphaned, with a cross carved in his forehead and a broken heart dead-set on vengeance. Think laconic figure settling an old-school blood debt, not Tarantino pithy lampooning.
The set-up is all classic western: an unexplained grudge between men tragically upends a young man's life and sets him on a deadly path (and triggers parallel narratives) leading to an inevitably bloodier reckoning with his enemy at some point in the future. It's a grim, gritty premise that certainly builds to an explosive climax.
That shadowy figure turns out to be criminal mastermind Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). His right-hand is a ruthless woman known as “Treacherous Trudy” Smith (Regina King), while another notable companion is notorious gunslinger Cherokee Bill (played with brooding perfection by LaKeith Stanfield). Rufus' every move is backed by his sinister group of cutthroats, gunslingers, thieves, until he ends up locked away serving a life sentence that is. However, after being broken out, Buck returns to the mission interrupted by his incarceration. He’s determined to see it through or die trying.
Nat Love (Jonathan Major) grows up to be an outlaw. His crew's made up of sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), a young fast-drawing artist named Jim Beckworth (a charismatic RJ Cyler) and a shotgun-wielding woman known as Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz). Love's gang has a curious code — they only rob other gangs. But at some point, Love and the gang parted ways in order for him to hunt down the people responsible for his family's tragic demise. Just as he's set to return and focus on winning back Mary's favor, Love learns his nemesis Rufus Buck’s been liberated by his intrepid band of criminals. He sets out once again to exact revenge.
Samuel strategically positions each member of this astounding ensemble for maximum effect. Their on-scene introductions pull double duty: adding charisma and depth all while tying each cast member to their western archetype. Rest assured, there's plenty of gunplay and mayhem to be had and boy does it unfold with style, humorous byplay and oft-exaggerated effects owing more to Spike Lee and old westerns than to Tarantino; so don't expect these women to be subservient. But for all the humor and occasionally outlandishness, The Harder They Fall never tips over the line into cartoonish caricature. These are real people interacting with little regard to how Hollywood’s repeatedly indoctrinated audiences to expect Black folk to present themselves on screen.
Every sweeping vista, genre-bending sonic element, each vibrant set piece and component of Antoinette Messam's lush costuming sets the stage for a richly drawn, if seemingly simple world full of renegades and killers driven by droll wit, incisive dialogue, elegantly choreographed violence and a powerful undercurrent of melancholy.
While the story rarely swerves from Nat Love’s emotional perspective, there's enough space given to flesh out each member of the crews and notable supporting characters. Samuel blatantly leaves you hungry for more with every scene change. The production design of the settlements again offers a callback to the classic western, complete with bawdy saloons. It’s not only a fitting backdrop for this stellar cast, it juxtaposes Ansel Adams-esque visuals and color schemes with stark whitewashed set pieces in a way that allows these moments to speak volumes about the time period (and how it's been represented in Hollywood).
This is about more than just rival gangs edging towards a blazing shootout. There’s a constant subtle byplay going on about destiny (of the manifest variety), hope, despair and the inescapable burden of knowing at any moment everything you’ve built for yourself can be taken away. Love may be out for revenge, but there’s a reason this showdown happens when and where it does. Nothing is ever as straightforward as it appears. So you may just find yourself a touch conflicted when it comes to Rufus Buck and his band of brutal badasses.
Although, if these nuances in this story slip past you, The Harder They Fall provides plenty of gun-blazing, knife-wielding and tantalizing chemistry that it won't fail to engage and entertain regardless. And if the film has a flaw (it doesn't), it's in overestimating some audience members' ability to catch the ironic hat-tips and quips in the dialogue and group dynamics that reveal the motives and mental state of this story’s many players. Plus, the storyline’s narrative drop-ins, abrupt changes and loose-ends are deliberate. Because every last person in this film is interesting enough to anchor their only story. And if we’re lucky, this is only the first of many films set in this world.
Samuel makes no bones about the fact his new shoot-'em-up is a fictional tale start to finish. But an opening title card saying, “While the events of this story are fictional … These. People. Existed” is a declaration — and reminder — that representation doesn't just matter, the kernels of truth that drive good fiction die without it. In simplest terms, writer/director Samuels wants audiences going into this madcap tale of revenge and woe understanding that The Harder They Fall's setting is not alternate history.
Building a world around characters inspired by real 19th century figures is easy because slave narratives — although undeniably American history — aren't the sum total of Black history. Black people existed at every point along the timeline of U.S. development. They lived, thrived and some even became notorious. The Harder They Fall, like its few predecessors, unapologetically centers its Black characters and relies on a musical sensibility and aesthetic certain to replant the Western genre in broader, fertile ground; embracing the unsung Black cowboys, outlaws and free people who also settled the wild west. Samuel's debut kicks open the door for more Black-led westerns featuring brash and bold characters. This film’s tapped into something refreshing, yet familiar. And that's a good thing.
Given the insane level of talent in the cast, it’s unsurprising that there’s not a single low energy or dull performance in the mix. Delroy Lindo brings a clear-eyed swagger to the legendary U.S. marshal Bass Reeves. Idris Elba and Regina King have a chemistry that’s made even more compelling by their on-screen self-possession. Jonathan Majors as Nat Love is a class in wielding ill-suppressed emotion to masterful effect. But if you don’t come away from The Harder They Fall ready to campaign for Danielle Deadwyler’s enigmatic Cuffie (modeled on Cathay Williams, the first Black woman to enlist in the United States Army) to take center stage in Samuel’s next project, I need you to head back into the theater.
The Harder They Fall is now playing in select theaters. It will debut on Netflix on Nov. 3.
Ro is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film/tv critic, writer and host on several of the MTR Network's podcasts. She's a member of the San Diego Film Critics Society and the Online Association of Female Film Critics. She's a former culture columnist for San Diego CityBeat (may it rest in peace) with a serious addiction to genre fiction, horror and documentaries. You can find her sharing movie and book recs and random thoughts, on her podcast I Talk Sh!t and Read or in her newsletter, Shelf Envy.
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