The Harder They Fall: A Thrillingly Stylized Pulp Western

Image by David Lee from Netflix

Logo for official selections of the Chicago International Film Festival

Official Black Perspectives and Drive-In Presentation of the 57th Chicago International Film Festival

Readying the viewer for its eager and loose dramatic license, the opening message of The Harder They Fall begins with “While the events of this story are fictional…” before changing to proclaim “These. People. Existed.” fading in one word at a time with those table-slamming periods. Consider that an emphatic shout to be heard that is louder than any broken bone or gunshot that follows in this Netflix release. The indignation seething from this movie is warranted and gladly received.

Written by Remember the Titans director Boaz Yakin and London recording artist Jeymes Samuel, also known as The Bullitts, in his feature directorial debut, The Harder They Fall assembles an infamous collection of Black western heroes, legends, and villains and splits them across two factions sharing a beef for supremacy and due respect. You won’t find a single slave, butler, housemaid, or other servant profession cliche in this movie. Even the most sinful or deranged among them exudes their own culture and operates on their own accord without a care or need to cower to anyone. The Harder They Fall pushes back against decades of ignored truths and weak cinematic portrayals of black people, putting its uninhibited brazen rebuke to historical erasure front and center.

Nat tends to his horse while talking with Mary.
Image by David Lee from Netflix

Painted with an origin story of seeking to avenge the murder of his parents witnessed as a young child, Nat Love (Lovecraft Country’s Jonathan Majors) has grown into his own man seeking the killer, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba of The Suicide Squad) and his connected gang. Flanked by the deadly Trudy Smith (If Beale Street Could Talk Oscar winner Regina King), the lightning-fast Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield of The Photograph), and sharpshooter guards on every building, Buck presides as the iron-fisted controller of the podunk town of Redwood City.

Love, through his own initiative and growing reputation as a rival outlaw partnering with the quick-drawing Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), has been inching closer to being powerful and well supported enough – with a larger squad of his own – to confront The Rufus Buck Gang. Nat enlists the help of his shotgun-wielding and stage-singing squeeze Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz of Nine Days), her own tough teen security partner Cuffee (Paradise Lost’s Danielle Deadwyler), and the legendary Black deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo of Da 5 Bloods). All roads for Nat Love seek to end in Redwood City.

The closer we get to the inevitable climactic showdown, which naturally includes a greed factor of disputed money, the character dynamics get tougher and looser at the same time. Crosshairs are tightened and motivations are spoken with finger-pointing glares instead of merely being wished or imagined. Quarrels are called out. Concurrently, glows of sashayed confidence are transmitted by both throngs itching for this fight. What does that look like and sound like in The Harder They Fall? It’s a devilish smirk, a cocked pistol, and a backhanded “much obliged, motherf-ckers” line of pleasantry.

Trudy holds a knife to Mary's throat while she is tied to a chair.
Image by David Lee from Netflix

Not a single member of this movie’s exciting ensemble performs with any less braggadocio than their respective characters. While much of that which transpires is funneling towards the star vehicle confrontation between the all-consumed Jonathan Majors and the paralyzing Idris Elba as the opposing leaders, it’s the featured women that steal the show. As the men share threats and platitudes at gunpoint, Zazie Beetz and Regina King take their part of the feud to an enthralling and visceral level. Simultaneously and true to the director’s intention, there is an ominous sense of radical vulnerability. Even with the actors showing off vigilante swagger every chance they get in a movie that’s a shade too long, the greater racial struggles, including parallels to the present day, are not forgotten for action’s sake. When stiffer drama is required beyond the pulp thrills, this stern cast delivers.

Three men in western wear stand and watch in a well-lit street.
Image by David Lee from Netflix

Incidentally, records show that none of these characters ever interacted in real life. Old West hero Nat Love would leave the cowboy life and become a Pullman porter. Rufus Buck and Cherokee Bill were hanged months apart for different crimes. James Beckwourth was more a fur-trading explorer than he ever was a gunslinger and died thirty years before anyone else in this movie. Stagecoach Mary was the first black female star route mail carrier in the United States and Bass Reeves would become the inspiration for the Lone Ranger character.

No epilogue notes for The Harder They Fall include those accuracies. A future “History vs. Hollywood” entry is likely on the way. Jeymes Samuel cherry-picking their legacies, arming them to the teeth, and putting them in a gladiatorial arena of saloons, streets, saddles, and six-shooters likely counts as bastardizing history. That’ll irk some purists, certainly, but this isn’t the first or last western amplifying tall tales and fish stories for entertainment. If people want facts, they’re going to have to look elsewhere than this powerhouse production from the combined bankrolling powers of Shawn Carter, former Pixar czar James Lasseter, and Tarantino regular Lawrence Bender.

Mary steps off the stage with her trusty shotgun.
Image by David Lee from Netflix

The western genre is always prime territory for stylization and that was the secondary goal for Jeymes Samuel outside of the forthright racial depictions. Powered by a modern-flavored soundtrack composed by the man himself, Samuel’s movie has a distinct groove and pep to things that are normally as slow as a trail-walking mule. Through an excellent satin-laced production design from Martin Whist (The Cabin in the Woods), Antoninette Messam’s (Creed) stunning costume work, and precision rotating camera dexterity by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Jojo Rabbit, The Master), The Harder They Fall pops with color and energy. Damn, does this movie look phenomenal! The Harder They Fall brims with as much flair you’ll see in a western this side of Sam Raimi’s flashy The Quick and the Dead from 26 years ago. To see that finesse come from proud sources makes it even more special.

The banner for the Chicago International Film Festival

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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