Netflix film review: The Harder They Fall
5 / 5 ( 1 vote )
Written by Arthur
Style and substance Jeymes Samuel’s thrilling, trailblazing Western is an absolute blast.
Director: Jeymes Samuel Cast: Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Idris Elba, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo Certificate: 15 Where to watch The Harder They Fall online in the UK: Netflix UK
“While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.” Those are the opening words of The Harder They Fall, Jeymes Samuel’s thrilling, trailblazing Western, which rides on to Netflix with all the excitement of a story long waiting to be told.
Those expecting a history lesson, though, are chasing after the wrong train: Samuel’s inspired premise for the film is to take people from textbooks and throw them into his own narrative. Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), a real-life contractor who delivered the mail on wheels in the 1800s, is here reimagined as a saloon manager, a smart businesswoman and a talented singer – not to mention a sharp-shooter in her own right. She has history with Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), who in real life was born enslaved but went on to become a legendary cowboy – and here is an orphan with a grudge against the man who killed his parents when he was a child.
The guy who pulled the trigger? Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Fast forward a couple of decades and Buck is broken out of prison by fellow outlaws Treacherous Judy (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). When word of his freedom reaches Nat, he rides out with Mary and his own gang – Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) and Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) – to get revenge.
The result is an all-Black Western that rides breezily over every expectation and convention the genre has set up over decades of white-washing the past. Despite a large number of Black cowboys in action at the time, the Wild West as seen on screen has notably lacked people of colour, preferring to take figures such as Bass Reeves and turn them into the Lone Ranger and other purportedly all-American heroes. The Harder They Fall rewrites that history twice over, and Samuel and Boaz Yakin’s script toys with that concept, from an inspired visual gag involving a heist in a “white town” to a severe warning to one character about using the n-word (“nincompoop”).
That wit and energy reverberates throughout the whole thing, with Samuel filming every set piece and showdown with dynamic camerawork and gorgeous choreography. His music background (he’s also known by the stage name The Bullitts) steeps the whole thing in a brilliantly stylish soundtrack, mixing in everything from reggae to hip hop along with the rhythms of horse’s hooves, train tracks and percussive shootouts. From projector scratches to whip-smart dialogue, it’s a self-aware showcase for his filmmaking talent, and while some might label it as Tarantino-esque, that’s a disservice to Samuel’s distinctive voice and aims: the main thing this director shares with the Pulp Fiction helmer is the clarity of his own playful vision.
Taking up the reins from Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, he crafts his own style of violent Wild West action that gives his remarkable cast the chance to play more than just rote genre types. Stanfield’s Bill is a pacifist as much as a formidable pistols expert, Cyler’s Buckworth is at once amusingly and poignantly desperate to prove himself, Delroy Lindo’s veteran lawman has the wisdom to bend the rules when necessary, Beetz’s Mary has sparky chemistry to spare with Majors, who brings earnest emotion and easygoing charisma to his hero, and Elba’s quietly menacing villain has an honourable aim to build a town that rewards Black business and wealth. In between them all is the MVP of the whole project, Regina King, who’s clearly having a ball as Judy – her stare alone is withering but it’s backed up by an intimidating, efficient ruthlessness.
Just as neither Trudy nor Mary are mere romantic interests considered inferior to the men, what emerges over the film’s slickly paced two hours is that the film is proud of its significance but not solely defined by it – it’s more a fable about family than a film about race. By shaking off the constraints of history, The Harder They Fall allows these characters to exist in their own sandbox of imagination where the characters aren’t living out narratives of trauma, but are simply having fun. After all, if cinema can give us Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, why not this? These people existed, The Harder They Fall tells us – and watching them have their own moment of Hollywood invention is an absolute blast.