The Harder They Fall REVIEW: A Bold, Black Western Western
It’s hard to believe that The Harder They Fall is musician/co-writer/director Jeymes Samuel’s first feature. It’s easy to believe that this is Samuel’s third, or even tenth feature. Samuel is an experienced filmmaker, having directed short films for musicians and accompanied his musical releases with short films. It’s amazing that this almost two-and-a half-hour epic western, with its camera work and music cues out-Tarantino Tarantino, as well as dueling colors schemes between towns that are white (where even dirt is white), and towns that are bursting with purples and greens, is a feature debut.
The Harder They Falls opens with a short, but powerful (if a bit dubious) assertion that “While these events are fictional…These. People. People. It is a fascinating choice to name the main characters in the film after real people, then create them as original characters for the movie’s narrative. Although it may drive people to learn more about the real west figures, it is not very well supported.
The film’s setup is classic spaghetti western, despite the fact that it doesn’t relate to reality. When Nat Love, young, is enjoying a meal with his mother and father, mid-grace, a tall man appears. He immediately instills fear into Nat’s father. Nat’s parents are shot down by the man, who leaves Nat with a distinctive cross scar on his forehead. As an accomplice, he holds the boy.
The film takes us back to the future, where Nat (Jonathan Majors) finally finds and shoots the man who shackled him while he was giving his scar. Nat thinks he is done taking revenge on the man who gave his scar, but Nat and his gang soon discover that the man has been released. Rufus Buck, who is brought to life by IdrisElba with equal sorrow and menace, has his own gang as well as his own town. The film follows the two gangs, as they try to get closer until it all comes to an end in a spectacular shootout.
Samuel and Boaz Yakin take a simple story and make it more complex by giving their characters complex moralities, emotional lives and injecting the film’s style with a lot of action scenes. Although the writing is full of great banter and one-liners it wouldn’t be as good without the dedicated performances of the cast, which also includes Regina King, LaKeith, Zazie Beetz and Delroy Lindo, fresh off an embarrassing Oscar snub for Da 5 Bloods. It is also remarkable that the film’s violence can function as both brutally painful in some instances and as “cool” during the thrilling shootouts or surprisingly great hand-to-hand fights.
Samuel’s background makes The Harder They Fall’s music one of its greatest assets. The script actually contained many music notes. This is evident in the cuts and zooms that run throughout the film that perfectly match both the soundtrack and score. It’s not only a delight to listen to because it aligns with the film but also provides a glimpse into the sounds of the diaspora over the years. The soundtrack features contributions from many artists, including those from Jamaica, Nigeria and South Africa. It also includes sounds and songs from today’s hip-hop, as well as songs by Shawn Carter (aka Jay-Z).
It is an enjoyable film to watch, The Harder They Falls. Even though it does emphasize the violence and pain, the film never feels exploitative or cruel. The film is engaging at every level, from emotion to humor to visceral thrill to thematic weight. It’s also a great casting choice, with a mix of established stars and up-and-coming actors who deliver high quality performances and look amazing doing it. This makes it easy to say that we have a modern classic.