Review: Stylish western 'The Harder They Fall' stumbles
Courtesy of Netflix
Nobody will knock Jeymes Samuel’s bloody western “The Harder They Fall” for its dearth of flair. The British musician-turned filmmaker's debut feature doesn’t preach revisionist history, but has their hands firmly on the pulse of the genre while ushering in a new wave of storytelling, signaling during one opening title card: “Though the events in this movie are fiction” before stating “These. People. Existed.” Samuel’s tackles western stereotypes head on, assembling an Avengers-like crew of A-listers: Regina King, Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Delroy Lindo, and LaKeith Stanfield to help give the worn-out cliches of the dated shoot-em-up genre some life. Historical authenticity isn’t the name of the game and Samuel’s mission to correct alternative perspectives predominantly told by the white male is, on paper, refreshing.
However, it results in your average mix of bloody brawls, slugfests, stagecoach robberies, and quickdraws punctuated with a wide ranging selection of pop, rap and reggae tunes (when you see Shawn Carter, aka Jay Z, with a producing credit, it all makes sense). But “The Harder They Fall', though inspired, never amounts to the sum of its parts and the quick jump cuts and chaotic transitions do minimal for already stagnant pacing. The opening scene gets things boiling when outlaw Rufus Buck (Elba) sets the stage as the cruel baddie, killing a pastor and his wife and taking a razor to their son, engraving him with a permanent scar. That young kid grows up to become Nat Love (Majors), leader of The Nat Love Gang with his possy (Edi Gathegi and a great RC Cyler), as well as love interest, the ass-kicking owner of the nearby saloon-brothel, Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz). Nat’s thirst for revenge arises when he hears from old pal and local sheriff/clergyman Bass Reeves (Lindo) that Rufus has been released from prison.
Rufus' entourage consists of soft-spoken Cherokee Bill (Stanfield), whom many claim has the quickest hands in the west, and his shotgun wielding right hand woman, Treacherous Trudy (King), an old flame with a harrowing origin story. “The Harder They Fall” sets the stage for these two rival gangs to eventually meet in a bullets and blood soaked finale, but the journey to get there has rough patches. There’s uneven dialogue and the repetitious promise of shoot-outs that almost never manifest is frustrating. Inspired by the works of Sergio Leone, Mihai Malamare’s cinematography doesn’t capture the glistening widescreen landscape of the wild west either (though the use of shadows and close-ups occasionally remedies that blemish).
To the performers credit, the final stretch showcases career high marks for Elba as he channels the agony and pain of his childhood with Nat in a heartbreaking, drop the mic, sequence. Beetz is equally as mesmerizing and Stanfield commands in a devilish supporting role that drips with swagger. The same can’t be said of King and Majors who aren’t given much beyond the obligatory: “It is what it is” montage. Nat is driven by vengeance and Trudy wants respect. Instead, both are elevated by those around them, especially Mary’s personal muscle Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) who throws heavy punches and, like everyone else in the movie, is a stone cold killer.
Despite harboring several decent performances, “The Harder They Fall” can't salvage a jagged rhythm. Choosing style over substance works sporadically and Samuels, who seems more obsessed with set design and odd camera angles than character motivation but shows great poise, almost gets a pass as he revitiazlies a genre in desperate need of a makeover. Perhaps “The Harder They Fall” opens the floodgates for crucial narratives of this caliber getting told, but a one-note story regurgitating the same troupes only goes so far. Eventually, the bullets need to mean something and “The Harder They Fall” kinda shoots blanks.
THE HARDER THEY FALL is now playing in select theaters and debuts on Netflix Friday, November 5th.