The Harder They Fall

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Jonathan Majors in The Harder They Fall.
Jonathan Majors in The Harder They Fall.
Photo: Netflix


The Harder They Fall




3.5/5 Stars


When Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), a charming but notorious outlaw learns of the release of his arch nemesis, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), from prison, he assembles a gang to finally exact revenge on Buck for murdering his parents in cold blood when Nat was just a kid. Meanwhile, after Nat and his crew rob a rival gang of the money they were carrying for Buck, the latter puts a target on the back of the very same gang who are out to get him.


During the press tour for his first feature film, multi-hyphenate talent, Jeymes Samuel has pretty definitively repelled even the slightest hint that this is just a job to him as in interview after interview after interview – no matter what the outlet – his unbridled enthusiasm has won over even the most hardened and cynical of film journalists. I was worried, then, that after being so solidly charmed by the man himself after watching/listening to just a few interviews, that I would end up being one of those curmudgeonly critics dumping on the passion project of someone who seems to lack a single cynical bone in his body. Tearing into the latest Adam Sandler "comedy" or Michael Bay abomination is one thing; tearing into something like The Harder They Fall is really quite another.

To my massive relief, though, I needn't have worried. The film does have a few significant flaws that prevent me from being quite as enthusiastic about his film as Samuel himself is (though it's hard to imagine that such a thing is even possible), but there is a lot to genuinely love here as well.       

To get the bad stuff out of the way, first, the film suffers from something that I could almost swear every single Netflix film suffers from: it is much, much too long. Westerns tend to have pretty threadbare plots and tend to run a bit long to start with, but this almost stereotypical tale of revenge and outlaws learning to live by Bob Dylan's maxim of "to live outside of the law, you have to be honest," really doesn't have enough story to fill its whopping 140-odd minute running time. Also, while the characters are a lot of fun, each with a particular quirk to set them apart from one another, their characterisation is still far too surface level to demand such a lengthy duration either.

Though the film does suffer from one more near-fatal flaw in a big twist that comes right at the end of the film that feels largely unearned and is ultimately nowhere near as effective as it would have been had it been introduced a lot earlier in the film, most of my problems with The Harder They Fall would vanish had it been about half an hour shorter with a pace that better matched its poppy tone. As it is, I was lulled into boredom quite a bit in those stretches between those parts of the film that are really, really, really fun. And, fortunately, the latter does go a long way to make up for the boring bits both in quantity and quality.

For a start, Samuel does a lot to subvert and undercut expectations about the sort of film he's making while also proving to be very adept at capturing the many tropes and conventions of traditional Hollywood westerns. There's an undeniable influence of the more stylised, post-modern work of the likes of Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino that gives the film that very "pop" feel and tons of style to spare, but it also plays out like a very old-school western that could easily have come out in the '50s and '60s.

It's a fantastic balancing act, and my personal favourite manifestation of this comes in the form of a simple background detail, whereby the houses, churches, and shops all look like the cardboard cutouts that you might find on the cheaper end of classic westerns. It's a move that feels both post-modern and wonderfully quaint, and it couldn't help but make me smile every time I noticed it. 

Perhaps the biggest way that Samuel subverts expectations, though, is in not making what most of us probably picture when we first hear of a western with an all-black primary cast and a black co-writer/director – especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Race does rear its head, inevitably, but it is more as (if you'll pardon the unfortunate pun) "colour" for the story than its primary driving force. There is no mention of slavery, and though Civil War soldiers make several appearances, the war itself is left entirely unspoken.

And yet, this is also not just your typical "white" western that happens to feature a black cast and black creator. No, it's a proper western that is infused with African American culture to tell the story of fictionalised versions of real-life black cowboys, who, despite being African Americans in the Wild West and despite not all of them making it out of the story alive, are no one's victims. This is black empowerment that doesn't reduce people to the colour of their skin and refrains entirely from the lens of victimisation – it's a film that asks, very simply, why can't black people take the reins of a traditionally white genre like the western without making it all about their blackness, while still not "whitewashing" them in the process? Why can't they, indeed.

Along with the bonkers-good cast that includes the likes of Regina King, Zazie Beats, LaKeith Stanfield, Idris Elba, and Jonathan Majors, the real star of the film is undoubtedly Jeymes Samuel himself and the way he (along with co-writer Boaz Yakin) infuses "blackness" into a genre that is traditionally, if not exclusively, "white". The sparky, lively dialogue is this beautiful mix of cowboy speak, modern black slang, and the sort of rural African-American that is probably most accurate to the time, while the characters themselves work as old fashioned western cowboys that are also recognisably culturally African American. It's a sublime balancing act, and he makes it look easy.

And then there's the music. Along with everything else, Samuel – who comes primarily from a music background, where he is known by his stage name, The Bullitts – scores the film and, get this, wrote all the songs. Music is so deeply ingrained in the film that it wouldn't be a stretch at all to call it a musical (as so many westerns were) and, like everything else about The Harder They Fall, it fuses the traditional cowboy music of classic westerns (Ennio Morricone's fingerprints are everywhere) with an eclectic mix of different black musical styles, including hip-hop, the blues, soul, spirituals, reggae, and funk. I'm a fan of some of these styles more than others (nay to hip hop, yay to the rest, pretty much), but the soundtrack isn't just packed with banger after banger; it's the perfect aural representation of all that's great about the film.

I do wish that the film was as flawless as the music, to be honest, but there's more than enough that's great about The Harder They Fall to forgive (if not exactly forget) its weaker aspects. And, if nothing else, it's a hell of a calling card for Jeymes Samuels. Can't wait to see what he does next.


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