The Harder They Fall is an ambitiously stylized 2021 western directed by Jeymes Samuel. It is a confident film, sure of what it wants to do, but the question of success at this cannot be confidently answered. At best, The Harder They Fall got a good number of stylistic choices right. It has the actors to hold the performance together, and it succeeds on this end; the music—expressing the director’s musical background—nourishes the tone and, when you pay attention, you realize it was used to switch the film from one beat to another; the sharp zoom-ins to emphasize actions; the quirky camera movements, these are all things the movie succeeds at, but the most obvious, the story, has some avoidable problems.
There are plot holes and questionable character decisions that begin from just around the second act. Nathaniel Love (Jonathan Majors) is the leader of the Nat Love gang—characters played by Zazie Beetz, RJ Cyler, and Edi Gathegi—who, for all their singing, could also pass for a band. Nat Love’s parents were murdered by Rufus Buck, played by the enigmatic Idris Elba, when he was a boy. Rufus himself has now been imprisoned. Rufus Buck’s gang members strongarm the authority into an agreement and Rufus Buck is absolved of all his crimes and broken out of his containment. Rufus Buck’s gang has delectable characters too, the quick drawer, Cherokee Bill (Stanfield LaKeith), Trudy Smith (Regina King), and, formerly, Wily Escoe (Deon Cole). What we have is a setup for a clash between the most villainous gang and the most sanctimonious one led by Nat Love. In-between is the forgettable sheriff, Bass Reeves, played by Delroy Lindo.
The stage is set, the characters are ready, but Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall is an isolated world for its characters, and this is its first flaw. Outlaw or not, there are consequences for blacks going on a killing spree on a train carriage, robbing a white bank, and a sheriff acting so blatantly in cohorts with criminals without proper back-up. There are in-film explanations, but they are still questionable. The consequence is that the good foundation built in the first act begins to wobble from around forty minutes into the film, and by the third act, we are merely watching for the final showdown, made absolutely delightful by Fela’s score playing in the background.
Guns drawn and shot amorally, this is the western way, but The Harder They Fall is insistent on morality, and this is why Nat Love’s character makes so many questionable decisions, why his love interest walked into a trap obvious to anyone; the need to restrict these outlaws to certain good people rules, good people emotions; that they can, someone, ascend the antagonists morally after the fight; when in truth they are both one and the same in any western world. And once that questioning begins, others follow, as far back as the first act, making us think, perhaps rather preposterously, that the whole stylistic affair might just be kitsch.
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- Who are we not to love Fela.
- I really looked forward to Jim and Cherokee Bill’s stand-off. I think it could have been better handled.
The Harder They Fall is streaming on Netflix.