Director: Jeymes Samuel
Starring: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, Deon Cole
Run Time: 139 mins
The Harder They Fall is a revisionist Western directed by music producer Jeymes Samuel in his feature length debut. Samuel makes it clear in the film’s opening that although the story is fictional, it is based on real individuals and it is one of very few Westerns where all the principle cast members are of African-American origin.
The film follows Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), an outlaw whose parents were uncompromisingly slain by enemy Rufus Beck (Idris Elba) when he was a child, who also carved a cross on the young child’s forehead, which the film opens on. When Nat hears news that Beck is released from prison, he rounds up a gang consisting of Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and the transgender Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), modelled on Cathay Williams to track the villain down and enact his revenge. Beck also has a loyal gang backing him up, most notably Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield). Samuel has assembled quite the talented cast and this makes for a really interesting opportunity to further develop the Western so can this translate onto the screen?
The Harder They Fall has an astoundingly refreshing first twenty minutes or so. It is innovative in its craft and reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s authorship with its poetic script and dazzling cinematic style – a scene portraying the brutal murder of Nat Love’s parents and his disfiguring is masterfully crafted in its tension, as is Nat enacting his revenge on one of Beck’s accomplices twenty years later and an early action sequence on a train. Idris Elba’s villain makes for a formidable foe in these early scenes and centres him as a brooding presence until he further appears later in the film.
Unfortunately, that’s about it in terms of the good. The rest of the film is a slog to the finish with a simplistic story that is elongated to a 140 minute run time that lacks depth and is all surface. The script is quite egotistical and the various representations of race, gender and disability are heavy-handed and flat-out unrealistic.
There are a mixed bag of performances here. Jonathan Majors makes for a compelling lead in his ever-developing career and Idris Elba’s early scenes are excellent, although this energy isn’t sustained in the second half of the film. Lakeith Stanfield is excellent as Cherokee Bill, possibly even more daunting a villain compared to Elba and Delroy Lindo can always be relied upon to elevate a film.
Zazie Beetz’s performance is rather grating and her character largely unnecessary. If Beetz’s performance misses the mark, then Regina King’s henchwoman might make you want to gouge out your eyeballs more. King’s character is just horrible and totally unrelatable and she is saddled with boring monologue after monologue. Although perhaps as her performance and character is so abrasive, perhaps that makes for a powerful antagonist?
Another large obstacle the film possesses is its obtrusive soundtrack, which has been compiled by Samuel and Jay-Z. The soundtrack is a mixture of contemporary soul, reggae, hip hop and rap artists, as well as songs that are sung diegetically by various cast members. Many of the musical choices aggressively do not fit in with the events being portrayed on-screen. The film feels, in many ways, like a musical, which isn’t necessarily a bad decision but this is the wrong type of story to try and balance this with in that the story is designed to have emotional weight.
One final plus for the film is its cinematography with Paul Thomas Anderson regular Mihai Mălaimare Jr. behind the camera. The early train sequence in particular is masterfully shot, a standoff between two characters is portrayed as a split screen and when one character walks through the door to the other, the two views satisfyingly collide.
It’s very disappointing that The Harder They Fall cannot sustain its inventive opening and that it is all surface and no depth. With a cast this talented, Samuel largely wastes them and the film is a good hour or so overlong and carries a lot of baggage. Although omitting the boisterous soundtrack would have helped the film wonders, it’s still difficult to imagine the film being successful with its simplistic story and its clumsy representations of marginalised communities. The Harder They Fall has an interesting angle for a Western but Samuel fails to capitalise on it and the result is mostly unsuccessful.