The Harder They Fall Is a Stylish, Magnetic Western
It’s been almost 50 years since Sidney Poitier directed and starred in Buck and the Preacher, one of very few films in the Western genre to center Black characters. A few other films did the same in the ensuing decades, but perhaps none as thoroughly as The Harder They Fall (in theaters now, Netflix on November 3). In Jeymes Samuel’s stylish, bloody tale of six-shooter revenge, an all-Black cast merrily steps into the genre’s well-worn tropes, which Samuel revives and sets spinning in witty directions.
The work of Quentin Tarantino is perhaps an inspiration here, particularly his enthusiasm for ornate talk and violence that is somehow both blunt and cartoonish. Samuel’s characters, even in their laconicism, love talking to one another, and the movie is shrewd and generous enough to give them room to do just that. But The Harder They Fall adds a mournful note that feels distinctly separate from Tarantino’s clever monologuing; Samuel’s film, which he co-wrote with Boaz Yakim, has a sneaky weight to it, accumulating over the sprawling run time until it reaches a surprisingly poignant, if melodramatic, conclusion.
Adding to that sense of depth is the fact that many of the characters we meet in The Harder They Fall are based on actual 19th century figures, including Nat Love, Rufus Buck, and the woman known as Stagecoach Mary. Some were outlaws, others scrappy adventurers. Samuel tweaks their histories and joins them together in time and place, but their real, complicated legacies—or, at least, their names—are given the honor of recognition.
Dishonorable as some of them may have been, of course. The Harder They Fall is squarely about killers—gun-slinging renegades who do possess some kind of moral code, just not one that falls within the borders of civil society. Jonathan Majors is Love, a former leader of a gang that robbed other gangs who is now out for revenge against the man who killed his parents when he was a child—and left Love with a nasty cross-shaped scar on his forehead as a souvenir. The villain in question is Buck, given graceful menace by Idris Elba. At the beginning of the story, Buck is in law enforcement custody and must be sprung out by his still very much active gang, while Love reassembles his old crew to help him on his mission.
These parallel narratives essentially double the amount of action sequences we might normally get, and allows us time to join in uneasy allegiance with both sides. It’s hard not to root for Buck and his faithful sidekicks, Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield), when they’re so coolly proficient at their trade. With Love, we fall under the charms of saloon proprietor Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), young hot shot Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), U.S. marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), and a mysterious toughie named Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler).
Everyone seems to be having fun—all relishing in the film’s chewy language and nimble gunplay. It’s only natural that we do, too. It can be a comfort to sink into the familiar stakes and settings offered up by so many Westerns. But when that pleasing recitation is given new life by a shift in perspective and aesthetic, it’s a happy jolt to the system. Samuel, who is also a musician under the stage name The Bullitts, makes an auspicious debut as a feature filmmaker. He knows when to deliver the expected punch and when to add his unique flourishes. The Harder They Fall trots along with invigorating confidence, a vision keenly realized.
And that cast! Majors makes a particularly strong impression, just as he has recently in Loki and Lovecraft Country and The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Possessed of both movie-star gravitas and the idiosyncrasy of an artiste, Majors is swiftly emerging as one of our more compelling actors. His fledgling energy is well-matched by the smooth ease of seasoned professionals like Elba, King, and Lindo. Everyone, really, is in fine form, grooving on the nifty gait and rhythm of Samuel’s filmmaking. I’d be happy seeing them all assembled again for some other adventure down the road. No matter that some of their characters don’t make it out of this film alive: They can just be repurposed into some other form, strutting out toward different vistas on their way to lay claim to cinematic territory too long denied.
— Aaron Sorkin on Scott Rudin: “He Got What He Deserves”
— The Controversy Behind the Scenes of Dallas Buyers Club
— Steven Van Zandt Talks Making, and Ending, The Sopranos
— Love Is a Crime: The Rise and Fall of Walter Wanger’s Cleopatra
— Matt Drudge’s Impeachment Debut and Strange Origin Story
— Squid Game: The Perfect Show for Our Current Dystopia
— An Oral History of Zoolander
— Which James Bond Star Is the Ultimate 007?
— From the Archive: The Epic Folly and Scandalous Romance of Cleopatra
— Sign up for the “HWD Daily” newsletter for must-read industry and awards coverage—plus a special weekly edition of “Awards Insider.”
Published at Thu, 21 Oct 2021 13:46:02 +0000