“How long you been alive in this country? A rock and a hard place is what we call Monday.”
The Harder They Fall, the feature-length directorial debut of Jeymes Samuel, enters into a long line of Revisionist Westerns (whereby the traditional format of a clear good guy/bad guy narrative is abandoned in favour of a more morally grey plot). An all-star ensemble cast takes that notion and runs with it, bringing a story based on real life outlaws of the frontier; how does it fare in the long tradition of the American Western?
Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is orphaned after his parents are murdered by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) and his associate Cortez (Julio Cesar Codillo). 20 years later, Love is a notorious outlaw and gang leader, who hears that Buck is to be released from prison and plots his revenge…
Westerns are a genre that lend themselves to great ensemble performances, and Samuel has assembled a stellar cast for this one; led by Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz and Regina King; with Danielle Deadwyler, RJ Cyler, Edi Gathegi, LaKeith Standfield, Delroy Lindo and Deon Cole. As one might expect from a cast list of this calibre, there are no weak links in this line-up; Majors and Beetz ooze charisma, Elba, King and Standfield bring layers of threat; and the rest of the cast rounds out the experience with differing energies, helping keeping each scene flowing in an engaging way, with everyone playing off each other brilliantly. Their energy really brings Samuel and Boaz Yankin’s script to life, and likewise, the script gives the cast plenty to get their teeth into; with nuance, flair and just enough melodrama to elevate the characters to a level where they appear almost superhuman at times – not like with the Marvel or DC character gallery, but more akin to the likes of Bond, telling a story of ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things, both for good and for ill.
This is the hook upon which The Harder They Fall really rests its hat; the narrative itself is perfectly constructed to make every character likeable, despite their obvious moral failings. As leaders of their respective gangs, Love and Buck are both responsible for some pretty reprehensible actions; yet their motivations are sometimes honourable, leaning heavily into the Revisionist Western style; though to discuss how that manifests specifically would be to ruin some of the finer narrative points of the piece, so we’ll leave it there.
While The Harder They Fall is very much an ensemble piece, Majors stands out as the central star of the film, and not just because the narrative revolves primarily around Nat Love. Majors brings a cool, calm and collected performance through Nat Love; with exceptional comic timing, charisma and sex appeal whenever required. His chemistry with Zazie Beets is exceptional, and the whole Nat Love gang is able to lean on his performance to really sell him as their leader, really selling the relationships throughout the film. Idris Elba provides the same figurehead on the opposite side, but his gang get a wider opportunity to sell themselves individually, with LaKeith Standfield’s turn as Cherokee Bill in particular being a highlight of the film. His competition with rival quick draw Jim Beckwourth, portrayed by R.J. Cyler, gives both actors the chance to demonstrate their differing personalities and deliverances, despite the characters being held in esteem for the same skills. The disparity in personality that Samuel & Yankin manage to create for the mirrored characters in each gang is impressive; and the cast are incredibly well utilised for their skills, with many of the cast getting the chance to show us a side of themselves which we may not have seen in previous roles; something which goes beyond the central cast – notable is Damon Wayans Jr, who has a brief but impactful appearance in a rare non-comic role, and he carries it off incredibly well.
The Harder They Fall stands out for more than just performances; this is possibly one of the most slick and stylish looking Westerns ever made. The set design is gorgeous, with bold-coloured buildings standing out against the dust of the western sun, the costuming is era-appropriate but not without a suitable amount of flair (if a character has silver buttons in his coat, those buttons have been well polished); and Samuel has curated some stellar tracks from the worlds of hip-hop, R’n’B and rap for the soundtrack, as well as writing and performing brand new tracks of his own; adding an extra layer of depth to the piece that naturally draws favourable comparisons to the likes of Hamilton; blending musical styles not traditionally associated with Westerns in with the action that makes one wonder why we haven’t had more rap tracks on Western soundtracks before now, frankly. All of this comes together best during the action scenes; with the aesthetics of the sets and costumes providing excellent focal points for Mihai Malaimare Jr’s impressive cinematography, mixing up traditional Western tropes with new approaches to catching gun-slinging action.
The Harder They Fall is a slick, attractive and highly entertaining entry into the long lineage of great Westerns. With a top-class stellar class, a great narrative, fantastic action and tremendous settings and soundtrack; this film is well worth your time to check out, and also suggests that we have a lot more still to see from Jeymes Samuel. This is worth the cost of a month on Netflix alone.
Dave McGuckin is a theatre graduate, bar manager, former comedian and eternal film lover from Northern Ireland, now living in Canada. He began writing film reviews in 2016 for The Grade and then Great Central, both based in Leicester, England.
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