The Harder They Fall
Twenty years after seeing his parents gunned down by feared outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) seeks a way out of the vagabond cowboy life with his love Mary Fields (Zazie Beets). But when he discovers that Buck has been freed from captivity by his loyalists Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield), Love takes his own gang – Fields, her enforcer Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), quick-draw Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and sheriff Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) – on what he hopes will be a final mission of vengeance.
It’s only been a few months really since my last “revisionist western” in the form of News Of The World, a film that maintained a focus, very much so, on the experience of the west from the perspective of a white man and a young white girl, albeit with plenty of Native influences. The Harder They Fall is a very different thing. Taking its cues from the likes of Django Unchained, it’s an effort to craft an African-American led example of the genre that plays fast-and-loose with a succession of real-life figures: the end result is an undoubtedly entertaining mix of action and adventure, but one that I feel will not resonate for too long of a time, tied to the staples and beats of the western.
I mean, it’s all well and good doing this sort of story with an almost entirely POC cast. It’s more than well and good, it’s admirable. Black people were part-and-parcel of life in the west, as the various figures this cast inhabits can attest. But is that enough? Because The Harder They Fall takes this exceptional starting point and exceptional cast, and ends up telling what I can only describe as a fairly humdrum story out of it. So many of the expected archetypes and plot points are here: the gang leader, the posse out to stop him, a train hold-up, the saloon hiding secrets, a town jail straight out of the 1960’s, a quick-draw contest (multiple actually) and a big finale where the revolvers and hoglegs just can’t seem to miss. I suppose when I get right down to it, what I’m trying to say is if The Harder They Fall was cast with nothing but white people it wouldn’t be anything that special.
But it isn’t, and it is. And the cast isn’t just a superficial thing either, with black culture, music (Jay Z is a producer under his real name, and is shows) and language all a big part The Harder They Fall, maybe to an extent that it becomes difficult for someone like me – white, Irish, decidedly middle-class – to fully appreciate it the way that director Jeymes Samuel will want it to be appreciated. I think back to something like Da 5 Bloods, which shares some cast members in the form of Majors and Lindo, and had some similar ideas, but which presented them in a much more captivating way. In a way it’s apples and oranges that comparison, but you can’t get beyond the fact that the narrative for The Harder They Fall is just another paint-by-numbers revenge plot set in the Old West, and comes off feeling pretty tired, from the opening prologue showcasing the instigating point, right down to a revelation-filled shootout finale where the devastating emotional beats don’t land as well as Samuel perhaps think they will: the fact that The Harder They Fall really does feel every bit of its 130 minute running time, much of it handed to a needlessly bloated second act and the shootout finale, plays a part here. For me it was also difficult to shake the feeling that you were watching something approaching fantasy, with racism and sexism seemingly non-existent in Samuel’s vision: surely a very deliberate choice, but is it a worthy one?
The actors all play their parts pretty well it has to be said, especially Elba. He seems almost like he was born to play this quiet, menacing hulk of a man, coldly calculating in every glance and movement, but also so prone to sudden violence that it is hard not to be on edge anytime he is on screen. He overshadows Majors pretty significantly, not because Majors is poor in his role by any means, but just because who wouldn’t be overshadowed by Idris Elba when the roles are what they are? In the end you kind of want to see more of the film focusing on Elba, than on the eclectic mix of supporting cast that flit in and out of the screen: seems like both good and bad guys have their magnificent seven here, but most of them are one-note characters of little import. The cast is fine, but only a few of them, namely Beets, Deadwyler and King are given the space to do anything with the characters they inhabit. You may notice I’ve specifically mentioned the women there, and that’s because it’s only with them that The Harder They Fall really gets inventive with its plot, giving women the kind of roles they would never have gotten in this genre for a very long time.
But if The Harder They Fall does have one thing going for it, it is in the visuals. Samuel, known mostly for music videos, and cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr., knwn mostly for The Master, do sort of knock it out of the park here I feel, with a cleverly shot film that makes the most of both the space – New Mexico – and the principals. I can’t get over one particular sequence, where opposing quick-draw artists Bill and Jim face each other with the camera looking down from almost directly above, so that we can’t see them moving, but we can see their long shadows doing all of the movement and expression required. That’s just maybe the best example, as The Harder They Fall overflows with great moments to please the eye: Buck’s walk away from confinement as a bloody massacre is instigated all around him; a circular fistfight between two old friends in a dusty western town street; a visit to “a white town” that is quite literally white, right down to the sand; and that finale shoot-out which, while grating on your patience given how long it lasts, is still shot with skill and an eye for various different kinds of action. The Harder They Fall is not a triumph for its story or most of its cast, but it is a triumph on the eye.
So, it is a mixed bag then. The Harder They Fall is to be commended for its commitment to telling this kind of story with this kind of cast, and for leaning into its commitment to diversity in its choices of words, music and other aspects. It is an Africa-American movie, through-and-through. But it has some serious problems, not least an elongated narrative that is too rigidly adhering to a formula anyone with even a passing similarity to this genre will be familiar with. In essence, I find that The Harder They Fall is a good first draft of a movie, which may seem like extremely harsh criticism, but not unfair. It’s partly recommended, because of Elba and the fact that we need more films like this, not less. But I suspect it will be seen primarily as a good starting point for diverse revisionist westerns that come after, and not an especially worthy example of the same.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).