The Harder They Fall was reviewed out of the BFI London Film Festival, where it made its world premiere. It will have a limited theatrical release on Oct. 22, and debut on Netflix on Nov. 3.
Writer-director and musician Jeymes “The Bullitts” Samuels begins The Harder They Fall with a notice: “While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.” A quick Google search confirms that statement; Nat Love, Rufus Buck, Stagecoach Mary, and Cherokee Bill — the characters played by Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, and LaKeith Stanfield, respectively — were alive and kicking back in the Old West. But they exist in all but name in this subversive take on the cowboy genre, as their characteristics, motivations and misadventures don’t quite line up with their real-life counterparts. Still, Samuels has cooked up a fun, slick, and suave Black-centric narrative that has as much in common with the likes of Carmen Jones as it does the Spaghetti Westerns and Tarantino films it riffs off.
A tense prologue sets the violent tone for this bloody revenge saga, where a young Nat Love is introduced to outlaw Rufus Buck through the murder of his parents. Marked with a straight razor cut to the forehead, Nat grows up to become an outlaw himself, but like Omar from The Wire, he’s got a code and he and his crew only target outlaws. Majors is not your typical stoic cowboy; he’s got charm, charisma, and never fails to show Nat’s humanity when key emotional scenes call for him to dig deep.
Similarly, Elba serves up a powerful yet understated performance as this Kingpin-esque crime boss, inflicting fear, pain, and death in order to achieve his ultimate goal of a Promised Land for Black Americans. In one scene, a train carriage expands to make way for Buck’s entrance; Elba’s a big guy, but this clever use of CGI, plus sharp angles and even sharper tailoring throughout, makes his towering character even more menacing. A potent scene in the final act allows the British actor to truly revel in the complexity of this villain in a performance that ranks among his career’s best.
Buck and Love are reinforced by eclectic ensemble gangs who bring class and swagger to their criminal escapades. Regina King as “Treacherous” Trudy Smith and Stanfield’s Cherokee Bill, especially, imbue their lethal bandits with equal parts poise and peril. Meanwhile, Edi Gathegi’s Bill Pickett and RJ Cyler’s Jim Beckwourth reliably balance the light and the dark with their comical duo. There’s a real contemporary sense of humour in Samuels and co-writer Boaz Yakin’s script; not every shot fired is a bullet. Sometimes, it’s a punchline, and it’s often used to defy expectations of how a tense confrontation might play out.
This droll temperament coincides with a playful soundtrack that includes nods to the classic Western scores of Italian composer Ennio Morricone, essential reggae and afrobeat bangers, and a new track from Jay Z (who’s also a producer on the movie). These remixes reinforce the Black experience in this usually white-dominated genre. Samuels’ Wild West is one that disrupts the oppressed stereotypes by keeping white people in the peripheral and Black performers playing every key role, from outlaw to marshall to stage performer to villain, with nary an N-word in sight. There’s no deference to whiteness, and that’s never more clear than in a hilarious use of production design for a whites-only town with a bank decorated like a grandma’s dated bungalow — frosted glass, sconces and all.
It’s certainly refreshing to see this Old Hollywood tradition continued through a Black lens. Cowboy shots frame gunfighters with authority, wide shots show off the expansive, Americana backdrop, and hybrid zooms make for amusing crash close-ups. And this journey of vengeance between friends and foes culminates in a bloody and brutal showdown for the ages, too. But for a new breed of Westerns with a character called “Cherokee Bill ” it would have been cool to see an indigenous actor in Buck’s crew considering his real-life exploits. Still, Samuels’ feature debut is an impressive display of myth-making that has made the Old West great again.
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