Like any genre, the American Western has been reinvented countless times over the years, its boundaries pushed, prodded, and tested, and its palette both literally and figuratively repainted through various filmmakers’ vision. Netflix continues that tradition with The Harder They Fall, a neo-Western adventure that assembles an all-star cast of African-American actors portraying real-world figures from the Old West, but overflows with modern style, symbolism, and cinematic spectacle.
The directorial debut of filmmaker Jeymes Samuel, The Harder They Fall casts Lovecraft Country star Jonathan Majors as Nat Love, the leader of an outlaw gang with an affinity for robbing other criminals. Nat has made it his life’s mission to avenge the murder of his parents by the notorious criminal Rufus Buck, played by Idris Elba, and when he learns of Buck’s impending escape from prison, he gets the gang back together for one final, dangerous job. The only problem? They’ll need to get through Buck’s own deadly gang of outlaws before Nat can have his vengeance.
The Harder They Fall sets itself apart in a crowded genre early on, thanks to a blend of innovative music and visual elements that somehow manage to make the film feel both surprisingly fresh and era-appropriate in tone. The film’s musical score hits a sweet spot between slavery-era spirituals and modern, powerful hip-hop, pulling you deeper into its gritty world of gunfighters and outlaws, and Samuel’s lens fills every scene with symbolism and memorable, heavily stylized shots.
All of that attention to detail ultimately pays off with a mix of music and imagery that’s more than just spectacle, thanks to memorable performances from its talented cast.
As Nat, Majors’ tremendous range is put to good use in The Harder They Fall. Whether he’s firing off a hail of bullets or a subtle smirk, Majors makes the most of every moment of screen time he’s given, and he continues to be one of Hollywood’s most fascinating leading men to watch in any performance. His role in the film alone would be enough to make it worth watching, but The Harder They Fall is overflowing with memorable characters and shots spread throughout its 137-minute running time.
Among the rest of Nat’s gang, Zazie Beetz throws herself into the role of Nat’s shotgun-toting former lover Stagecoach Mary and keeps the character prominent and compelling despite an arc that sidelines her for large portions of the story. RJ Cyler and Edi Gathegi portray cocky quickdraw expert Bill Pickett and sharpshooter Jim Beckwourth, respectively, and the scenes they’re given — both together and individually — help relax an otherwise meticulously crafted, carefully structured film with some genuinely fun exchanges.
Although Elba is, as usual, wonderfully effective as the film’s menacing primary villain, it’s Buck’s gang that consistently provides some of the film’s standout roles.
“Treacherous” Trudy Smith is the sort of cold, calculating killer that an actor can have a lot of fun playing, and Watchmen actress Regina King clearly does so. Even standing alongside Elba’s ruthless, aspiring crime lord, King makes it clear at all times that she’s the most dangerous person in the room — man or woman — on more than one occasion, and sells that threat effectively over and over again throughout the film.
On the flip side, Oscar nominee Lakeith Stanfield’s performance makes unpredictable gunslinger Cherokee Bill one of the film’s most inscrutable characters, with muddied morals, lethal skills, and one brilliantly delivered line of dialogue after another. His motivations are as confusing as your feelings about him, which alternate between wanting to see an entire movie about his character and wanting to see him dead.
Although The Harder They Fall is thoroughly entertaining and wonderfully crafted, it isn’t without a few weak points.
The film is filled with clever dialogue, but the actors’ delivery is occasionally drowned out by the film’s aforementioned powerful score. It doesn’t happen often. But when it does, it’s particularly frustrating given how much thought and craft clearly went into the script and the actors’ interpretation of their characters.
Some of the big names featured in the film also feel a bit underused, given their talent and high profile, with Beetz’s character vanishing for chunks of the film and award-winning Da 5 Bloods actor Delroy Lindo not receiving nearly enough screen time (or development of his character) as he deserves.
The negatives are few and far between in The Harder They Fall, though, which ultimately delivers an ambitious and wildly entertaining adventure set against a powerful score that amplifies and accentuates Samuel’s unique vision for the film. It isn’t easy to stand out in a crowd, but The Harder They Fall carves out a special niche for itself that makes it as fascinating as it is fun to watch.
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