Opening this years BFI London Film Festival is a blistering piece of debut feature-filmmaking which sets out to correct Hollywood’s history books, revitalising the Western genre. The film’s characters spotlight historical Black figures of the Old West, including Rufus Buck, Nat Love, Trudy Smith, Stagecoach Mary, Bass Reeves and Cherokee Bill – finally telling the legacy of those typically omitted from leading roles of the genre. Opening this week with a limited cinema run, this gritty, stylized Western also debuts on streaming giant Netflix.
Directed by Jeymes Samuel, The Harder They Fall centres on Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), an outlaw who’s out to settle a long-held score by finally hunting down the man who killed his parents. He’s joined by former lover Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), fast drawing Jim Beckwourth (R.J. Cyler), sharp shooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and law enforcement officer Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo). The targeted criminal in question is Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), a dangerous gang leader who’s just been freed by his fearsome crew, which is spearheaded by the lethal “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield).
This blood-splattered tale of revenge is a hugely compelling and action-packed slice of revamped Western. Once Samuel establishes the picturesque world and assembles the core members of the opposing gangs, the character-driven narrative hurtles by with break-neck pacing and stylish flair. Amongst the tense twists and turns, the film is bolstered by a smart script and witty humour – particularly in one hilariously unplanned bank robbery. While the narrative is admittedly a little thin – straying into predictable genre beats at times – the phenomenal depth of performances from such a talented cast truly elevate it.
Long gone is the white male centric Western flick, as The Harder They Fall features an all-star Black cast which finally reclaims previously stereotyped roles of the genre. The ever-charismatic Jonathan Majors leads as outlaw Nat Love, and following his surprise turn in Loki and his brilliant performance in Lovecraft Country, continues to cement his status as one of the most exciting actors today. Starring as Rufus Buck is Idris Elba, who brings a real depth and surprising anguish to the villainous role, while Regina King absolutely commands attention and exudes a real magnetism as “Treacherous” Trudy Smith. She shares one of the most captivating scenes with Zazie Beetz’s Mary, as she peels an apple while relaying a tragic personal story – leading to one of the film’s best choreographed fight sequences. Support comes from a quietly psychotic turn from an equally charistmatic LaKeith Stanfield, a measured Delroy Lindo and a cocky but endearing RJ Cyler (with the fantastic line “I’m lightenin’ with the blam blams).
Writer and director Jeymes Samuel, who some may know as his musician stage name ‘The Bullitts’, also scored, wrote and produced a majority of the songs for the soundtrack – working with the film’s producer Jay-Z on two original songs. There’s perfectly timed needle drops with songs from Ms. Lauryn Hill, CeeLo Green, Seal, Laura Mvula and Koffee, heightening the action and emotions onscreen. There’s also plenty of hyper-stylised and hyper-violent action sequences and shootouts expertly choreographed, with Major even performing his own impressive acrobatics while horse riding. The action is set against the backdrop of a number of beautiful landscapes, with an amazing attention to detail in the costumes from Antoinette Messam and expertly crafted sets.
The Harder They Fall is such a stunning & stylish ride which importantly course corrects Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayal of the genre. Jonathan Majors continues to be one of the most compelling actors today, while Regina King steals the show with an outstanding commanding performance. What an impressive directorial debut from Jeymes Samuel.