The western appears to be a fading genre in modern-day Hollywood. It feels like the distance between releases of mainstream westerns gets larger and larger by the year. At this point, for creators to make a new western that stands the test of time like the old ones, they would either have to reinvent the genre entirely or lean into the campy cliches that make westerns so fun. THE HARDER THEY FALL, a star-studded directorial debut that released on Netflix recently, manages to do both. For a first time director/writer (other than a short film and a Jay Z music video), Jeymes Samuel shows a clear understanding of the genre while including many diverse influences that enhance the experience. THE HARDER THEY FALL seems destined for cult status since the work is not getting the positive acclaim it deserves but contains an infectious energy that viewers will remember.
At its core, THE HARDER THEY FALL is a typical old west revenge saga. When Nat Love (the excellent Jonathan Majors) was a kid, his parents were murdered in front of him by a ruthless and cunning outlaw (Idris Elba) . Love has never forgotten the day his life changed and has dedicated his adulthood to finding and killing those involved in his parents’ demise. He finally finds himself with a major opportunity: the man behind the murders, Rufus Buck, has escaped from prison and is attempting to take over a small town and create his own domain. Buck is attempting to secure a large sum of money for himself and his gang — money which happens to be in the hands of Nat Love. This gives Love the opportunity to seek the revenge he has always craved and rid the world of a formidable evil once and for all.
While THE HARDER THEY FALL is by no means a perfect film, it is still fantastic at leaning into sillier characteristics to create a movie reminiscent of old spaghetti westerns. This western contains some classic traits like the cheesy one-liners, the old-fashioned Mexican standoffs, and the overly violent yet fake deaths. Samuel acutely understands the ingredients of what made Clint Eastwood films great, yet he adds even more details that make this film unique to him. One excellent example is the soundtrack, which is so consistently outstanding that it serves as a character of its own. He plays reggae instead of country western music when the characters are riding across the desert, the opening credits include a Kid Cudi song with plenty of other recognizable artists like CeeLo Green scattered throughout, and he even includes choral music during the more dramatic scenes.
Samuel also gives the audience a sense of the pain that comes with being a Black American without focusing the movie on it or beating the audience over the head with a political message. All of these characters are supposedly real people even though the events are fabricated, which is believable because of how lived-in they feel. Maybe this is due to the fantastic cast, who, for the most part, play their roles with effortless charisma and emotion. The two highlights are Elba and Majors as the villain and the hero, respectively. Elba doesn’t even need to try to be menacing — as soon as he walks on screen the entire room shuts down because of his immense presence, yet when he has to crank up the emotion, he does so as no other actor in Hollywood can. Majors comes close to Elba’s level of talent, making one scene they share together near the end of the film one of the finest scenes of acting all year. The fantastic writing from Samuel is much of what makes this scene incredible, but Majors is one of the most promising actors in film with projects like this, Loki and Lovecraft Country.
As I mentioned before, the film is not without its flaws, many of which involve specific writing details like convenient plot lines and elements that cut corners in a lazy way. Many times throughout the film, events occur simply so the story can move forward without disruption, and while these events likely helped the pacing, they don’t often make sense in the context of the story. Along with this, certain characters do not stand out as much as others, with the main one being Stagecoach Mary, played by a miscast Zazie Beetz. Her character is not given all that much to do other than be a damsel in distress despite being set up as a strong female character. The mismatch is compounded by the fact that Beetz in no way resembles the actual Stagecoach Mary in both character (she was not a dancer and saloon-owner like she is in this movie) and physicality (Beetz is a skinny, light-skinned woman while Stagecoach Mary was a larger dark-skinned woman). Decisions like this are just lazy, and don’t reflect well on the production as a whole. I don’t think these decisions fully distract from the fact that THE HARDER THEY FALL is an excellently produced and quality western, but a little bit of effort in this case could have gone a long way in making this movie “masterful” instead of “really fun.”
I nonetheless highly recommend THE HARDER THEY FALL, for not a lot of films like this get made and are seen by the masses. Plus, it’s a fantastically directed movie, with some of the best shots of the year so far (one is so impressive that I wanted to rewind and watch it again) and some unexpected twists that add great meaning to this seemingly average western. Talent is flowing throughout the film, and not a second goes by that isn’t entertaining and well-crafted. It could definitely be better, but in the end it was never destined for success because of the minimal marketing and Netflix release. Samuel clearly made this movie for theaters, and watching it in one’s living room minimizes the impact of many scenes. Some movies just shouldn’t have been bought by Netflix. Either way, THE HARDER THEY FALL still proves to be a new stellar western that knows exactly what it is trying to be and succeeds at achieving it.