We’ve had black cowboys on the screen before. Sometimes satirically (Blazing Saddles), sometimes seriously (the lackluster 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven). But we’ve never really had anything quite like The Harder They Fall. It somehow embraces and celebrates its Blackness without focusing on it — it’s not a tale of oppression, although the scars of slavery are clearly stamped on parts of it. Instead, it celebrates the unsung Black heroes (and villains) of the West, true-life characters brought into a not-so-true story. It’s the story of two rival gangs of outlaws — one, led by Rufus Buck (a formidably implacable Idris Elba), the other led by a vengeful Nat Love (Jonathan Majors).
There are any number of complications thrown into the mix — an embittered romance between Nat and Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), a resigned US Marshall trying to keep his conscience clean (Delroy Lindo), an overenthusiastic quickdraw named Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler, a long way from the last time I saw him in Power Rangers), and Buck’s utterly ruthless second, Trudy Smith (Regina King). There are gunfights and fistfights, massacres and mayhem. But there’s also surprising tenderness, camaraderie, and love to be found throughout The Harder They Fall. It’s a balletically violent tale, told with such lush, vibrant tones that it becomes nearly hypnotic. Every frame, every moment, every color-drenched costume and set piece, every pulse-pounding modern musical note are all a gauntlet thrown at the ground, daring the viewer to compare it to the dusty, drab sights and sounds of the Old West as we’ve known it today.
This is not a perfect film. It sometimes loses its narrative thread in favor of flash and color. It’s diverted two-thirds of the way to what felt more like a video game side quest than a plotline. At almost 140 minutes, it’s definitely longer than it needs to be. But then again, it’s clear that Samuel (who co-wrote the script with Boaz Yakin) had so much planned and needed to get all of it in. It’s so carefully, beautifully crafted that it’s easy to forgive its flaws. Gorgeous, colorful sets and fabulously designed wardrobes create an ethereal, almost dreamlike world, a marked departure from the typical Wild West. A penchant for almost Shakespearean monologues, particularly by Rufus’ gunman Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), pepper the clever, intense dialogue. It’s all meticulously bound together by a brilliantly curated soundtrack that runs the gamut from hip hop to dancehall, spilling vibrance and infusing emotion into every scene.
The film’s overt coolness is then delivered through the terrific performances of its actors. This bold, beautiful cast are all at the tops of their games. Regina King owns much of the film, as her Trudy is an unrepentant sociopath, unwaveringly loyal to the stonily menacing Buck. Everything about her, from her flawless eyeliner game to her glorious hats to her fascinating patois, is a joy to watch, even as she’s cutting through her enemies like a shark through chum. Stanfield is wonderful as Cherokee Bill, a vicious, backstabbing killer who is also strangely resigned, as if he’s embraced that he’s going to hell and is just putting it off at this point. But it’s also the heroes … or antiheroes, as it were, that help the film shine. Majors is incredible as the driven Nat Love, torn between his love for a certain woman and his love for vengeance, emotionally laid bare in one scene and unstoppably violent in the next. Everyone takes the typical Western tropes for their characters — the gunslinger, the damsel, the hero, the villain — and breaks them down so that they can build them back up into something new, something alive and unique.
The Harder They Fall immediately sets out to defy the typical conceits of the Western genre. Yet it’s unquestionably a Western, one of those films that shows you that a genre doesn’t have to be conventional, that you can take something old and tired and melt it down, reforge it, reshape it into something new and wholly unexpected, while still staying true to its roots. A blistering tale of revenge starring with a dizzying array of talent attached to it, it’s a genre-bending journey into an Old West we’re rarely shown but hope to see again.
The Harder They Fall is streaming on Netflix as of November 3, 2021.