It really shouldn’t work should it? This movie, I mean. It really shouldn’t. It’s anachronistic, über-stylized, not all that faithful to the western milieu (despite some Sergio Leone touches here and there). On top of that, director Jeymes Samuel’s only other feature credit is something called They Die By Dawn, a 2013 western with an (admittedly) amazing cast that apparently has only been seen by that cast’s family members.
Samuels throws all kinds of stuff at the wall in The Harder They Fall while also throwing the conventions of the traditional western out the window. The soundtrack is almost entirely wall-to-wall hip-hop (Jay-Z is one of the film’s producers), there’s a winking at the camera vibe that the film gives off throughout, and the action sequences have more in common with John Wick than Open Range, Unforgiven, or just about any other decent western you’ve ever seen. Honestly, it’s all a bit of madness. Yet somehow, it is not folly. In fact, not only is it a bloody good time, it sticks with you for days.
Sussing out why this film works where movies like Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven or Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (and to my mind, Django Unchained) didn’t, takes some doing. Some of the reasons are obvious, starting with the cast: Idris Elba, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, LaKeith Stanfield, and Zazie Beatz are six of the most charismatic actors alive, and they each get multiple moments to showcase their considerable gifts.
This is largely Jonathan Majors’ movie, and if anyone had any doubt about his ability to carry a film, they can lay those questions to rest here. The film asks a lot of Majors—he has to be cool (sometimes ironically so), but he also has to be tender, charming, hellbent on revenge, and when the time comes (and boy are the last five minutes of this movie something), he has to dig deep and bring what mostly seemed like a rollicking fun movie to a higher plane. He absolutely manages all of that with aplomb. I knew Majors was a fine actor when I saw The Last Black Man in San Francisco, but what I will say now is that he is not only a thespian, he is a star. And those two things don’t always go together.
The target of Nat Love’s (Majors) ire is Rufus Buck, played with great command by Idris Elba. One might argue that the role of Buck is a bit underwritten, but because of what Elba naturally brings to it—an exquisite mixture of charm and menace—he makes the film’s villain not just an excellent “big bad,” but a real person.
While I have a sinking feeling that this is the type of movie that Oscar will end up ignoring, there should at least be significant buzz around LaKeith Stanfield’s performance as Buck’s henchman, Cherokee Bill. Every word out of his mouth is wry and perfectly accentuated, and there’s something about his laconic nature that plays perfectly in the western milieu. He’s chilling, amusing, and, like Elba, brings so much more to the part than what’s on the page. I think it’s fair to say after seeing Stanfield’s recent turns in Judas and the Black Messiah, The Photograph, Atlanta, and well, everything he’s ever done, it’s entirely possible that he may be the best actor on the planet.
I mean it.
It’s also beautiful to look at. It’s dynamically shot, edited, written, and performed. Even when Samuel occasionally threatens to overwhelm the substance of his story with his relentlessly stylish direction, the film succeeds because it is spilling over the brim with fresh ideas. After years and years of westerns being largely about white people, The Harder They Fall represents a whole other side of life out in the plains and deserts of the west. There is not one significant speaking part for a white character.
The Harder They Fall is an absolutely novel film, often hilarious in ways you can’t see coming. There’s a hysterical title card that pops up when Love and his crew go to rob a bank in a white town—don’t miss that title card. I’m pretty sure I slapped my knee and I’m quite certain I laughed out loud (and I’m more of a light chuckle with a smirk kinda guy). Beyond that, there’s a lovely hidden tribute to the late and great Chadwick Boseman in the form of a passing train car which, besides being a sweet gesture, also tells you that Samuel’s mind is working all the time through every scene.
I alluded to the film’s final five minutes earlier—don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you—but there’s a twist you can’t see coming, one that connects Love and Buck, which depends entirely on what Majors and Elba bring to the moment. It’s in that moment that the film makes clear it never intended to settle for being just a fun night out. It reaches for a pathos that it seems to have invisibly earned. For a movie so focused on being entertaining (and boy, is it ever), the culmination of the film adds up to so much more than you could have possibly expected.
The Harder They Fall is a film full of flourishes, broad strokes, and endless surprises. From start to finish, you get the sense that this is the movie Tarantino tried to make… twice.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.