Westerns usually fall into one of two categories these days. They either try to be a classical throwback, or more commonly, they try to be revisionist. We’ve seen the revisionist western in numerous forms over the years, including procedurals like Copland and even comic book far like Logan. Interestingly, the new film The Harder They Fall tries to split the difference. This is very classic in terms of its plot, but quite modern in its execution. Plus, depicting a largely African American cast of characters (and actors/actresses portraying them) is unlike what the genre typically offers us. The movie is trying to do something rather unique. Luckily, it’s more than up to the challenge.
The Harder They Fall is about as fun as it gets for a modern western. Often, these sorts of films aim to be bleak efforts, trafficking in dark and dour themes. There’s certainly drama here, but the movie is enjoying itself thoroughly, especially during some of the action scenes. It’s not exactly light fare, but it’s not trying to depress you. The flick just wants to entertain, while shining a light on some characters you’ve never been given the chance to see on screen before. For my money, that’s more than enough to make this an undisputed success. Netflix has a good one on their hands here.
The film is a western, showcasing some cowboys and cowgirls we’ve never seen on screen before, as mentioned above. After a prologue that introduces the dastardly Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), we meet our hero/antihero in outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors). A smooth yet dangerous character, he has a gang that’s as capable and cool as he is. When Nat finds out that Rufus, a long-time enemy, has been sprung from prison by some of his own gang members in “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), revenge is in order.
Setting out to assist on Nat’s quest are former flame Stagecoach Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and quick fingered Jim Beckwourth (R.J. Cyler). Of course, they’re not alone in this mission, but they’re going to need all the help they can get. After all, Rufus doesn’t intend on going down without a fight. It all builds to an old fashioned western shootout, though of course done with a new school style.
This cast is aces, just going on name value alone. None of them especially stand out, but they’re all relishing their roles, and that’s not nothing. Jonathan Majors is a classic hero, while Idris Elba is a fun villain. LaKeith Stanfield and Regina King really lean into their broader villain characters, stealing their scenes. Zazie Beets, R.J. Cyler, and Edi Gathegi are no slouches, either, even if their characters are a bit more standard for the genre. No one disappoints, but if we’re labeling best in show, it’s a tie between Elba, King, and Stanfield. Supporting players here include Delroy Lindo, Damon Wayans Jr., and more.
Co-writer/director Jeymes Samuel has style to spare here. Along with co-writer Boaz Yakin, Samuel a standard sort of western, complete with action and drama. The same goes for the evocative score, by Samuel himself However, it’s in his direction that The Harder They Fall stands out. The visuals and creativity that it’s all staged with really jumps off the screen. Samuel is having fun honoring the genre, but doing it in his own way, and it shows.
The Harder They Fall will please those who love westerns just as much as those who are indifferent to it. The stacked cast, the creative direction, and the enjoyment on display will win just about anyone over. This film may not be an awards player, per se (though who knows), but it is a great deal of fun. Dropping this week on Netflix, that’s more than enough to warrant a hearty recommendation.