Synopsis: Gunning for revenge, outlaw Nat Love saddles up with his gang to take down enemy Rufus Buck, a ruthless crime boss who just got sprung from prison.
Stars: Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Idris Elba, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, Deon Cole, Julio Cedillo, Woody McClain
Director: Jeymes Samuel
Running Length: 139 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: There’s truth to the spectacle you see on the screen in writer/director Jeymes Samuel’s new Netflix Western The Harder They Fall. Using the real-life black cowboys that made up the good guys and gals in the Old West as well as a fair share of the bad ones, too, Samuel takes a decent share of liberty with history and actual names of those that lived to create a tale of revenge that doesn’t present an alternate vision of the wild wild West so much as a version that includes everyone that was there. The result is a fiercely entertaining film with showcase roles for a number of established black actors while also introducing an exciting crew of new names that could be in the next wave of lauded performers. It’s one of those nice rarities that’s far better than the promo materials make it look, surpassing any expectation you may have going in.
Samuel (a British singer/songwriter working under the stage name The Bullitts, also responsible for the haunting score) is willing to set the audience off kilter from the start, opening with a shocking prologue that gives you insight into why an older Nat Love (Jonathan Majors, Da 5 Bloods) has a crude cross carved into his forehead. The man that gave it to him, the ruthless outlaw Rufus Buck (in a blistering turn by Idris Elba, Prometheus), has his reasons that we’ll learn about late in the film but…all good things to those who wait. Until then, wade through Boaz Yakin (Now You See Me) and Samuel’s screenplay that takes Nat Love on a mission of vengeance when his past comes back in a major way.
Buck is being transported via train in a heavily guarded cell when his loyals come for him, including Trudy Smith (Regina King, an Oscar-winner for 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield, an Oscar-nominee for 2021’s Judas and the Black Messiah). Their take no prisoners (and no BS attitude) keep the tension high with this thrilling train/traveling prison break and soon Buck is back in his self-made town of Redwood, TX where he has business to attend to with the man he left in charge. While he’s been away, things have gone astray and just as he’s finding out his town is bankrupt is when he also learns that Nat Love has made off with a sizable amount of his money. Nat’s already on his way to settle an old score with Buck, though, and when Buck manages to get a bargaining chip he can use as leverage on the younger man it sets the stage for a showdown in Redwood where old debts come due for all.
Not new to the Western genre, having directed the 51-minute short They Die by Dawn in 2013, Samuel instills in his second round at the rodeo a light touch that plays in stark contrast to the violence. It shouldn’t come as a big surprise The Harder They Fall was produced by Lawrence Bender then, as Bender was a longtime collaborator with Quentin Tarantino, another filmmaker who found an enormous amount of success with his blending of styles within an established genre. What’s better is that nothing about it seems forced or terribly out of place either. There’s an easiness about the whole thing that gives the movie its cadence and free flowing feel – it may be nearly two and a half hours, but you’ll be surprised at how swiftly it flies by. Samuel also pays service to the history of black people in this time period by doing his research beforehand and, while creating a work that is entirely fictional, using many real names of famous black cowboys and female outlaws of that era. It’s refreshingly told from one perspective and the only truly white town featured is hilariously designed in such a way that the audience is instantly in on the nudge to the ribs Samuel is giving — but it does speak to some of the darker aspects of that period that are shied away from. That’s for a different style of movie, though. The Harder They Fall isn’t that movie.
The enormity of talent acquired for the film is deeply impressive. Not only do we have Elba (in his second cowboy role of 2021 for Netflix after 2020’s Concrete Cowboy) in typical full force as the unflinchingly merciless Buck but Delroy Lindo (LX 2048) is here as a sheriff joining with Nat’s group to take down a longtime enemy. There are times when I thought Stanfield was going to walk away with the movie with his soft-spoken sharpshooter, but then King would speak up and my opinion would change to her being the MVP. Not known for playing the villain, King revels in the role as the ride or die second hand to Buck who might be crueler than her boss. Of the numerous scenes that she’s a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-of great, watch for her apple-peeling scene.
On the other side of the fence, Majors continues to prove himself a rising star, as does Zazie Beetz (Joker) as a proprietress of several saloons who has caught Nat’s eye. I was especially glad to see Danielle Deadwyler explode onto the scene in such a big way. The character she’s playing is incredibly complex and I wouldn’t want to label it any particular way, but it has a big impact on multiple levels. It’s a potentially star making role and after seeing what she can do in 2020’s excellent Appalachian thriller The Devil To Pay I made a point to keep tabs on what she’s up to next.
For a while, pre-pandemic high-profile Netflix movies were getting a decent amount of exposure in theaters but that has been reduced greatly. That’s disappointing, especially for movies like The Harder They Fall which is particularly theatrical and feels like it was made for exhibition on a very large screen. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s (The Master) cinematography is grand in scale and the production design by Martin Whist (RoboCop) is surprisingly colorful. So many Westerns feel like they have to be dull and covered in dust. This is a vibrant and bold film to match the people and story being told, down to Antoinette Messam’s (Wish Upon) luxe costumes. Though it has a clear three act structure, and everything introduced felt satisfied, there could be a potential for more adventures in this world Samuel has created and I would love to see that happen. I’ve fallen hard for these characters and this filmmaker.