Starring: Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Regina King, Zazie Beetz
Director: Jeymes Samuel
Mood: If you’re full of energy and want a high-octane action adventure dressed up in a ridiculously good-looking Western package.
The Harder They Fall is a rich, vibrant, gloriously violent movie that is a lot of fun to watch. I just can’t give it full props as a Western.
Let me preface this review by saying that I’m EXTREMELY WHITE. I have what I call a library tan. The sun does nothing but turn me pink for a few days before returning to ghastly white. I’m so white an ex of mine complained about my legs blinding him while he was driving on a summer day.
So while I’ve watched a shitload of Westerns and have been a professional writer for almost 25 years – my reviews are still just opinions on movies seen through a white lens.
Now let’s get to it: I was SO STOKED to see a Western with an almost entirely Black cast. One in four cowboys in the Old West was Black, we need those stories. The trailer gave me goosebumps, it looked so good.
But The Harder They Fall started to lose me about 30 minutes in, and it never got me back. And that right there is a disservice to the real historical figures represented in its story.
If you want Tarantino-level violence with an absolutely stellar all-star cast, this will give you everything you want and more. It’s a great movie, and if I wasn’t a diehard Western fan this would probably be a near-perfect review. But it spends so much time on the action sequences and leans so far into its Revisionist theme that it fails to create an actual Western vibe.
The Harder They Fall opens in a small homestead, with a Black family sitting down to dinner. They hear horses outside and a heavy knock on the door. Next thing you know an unseen gunman blows everyone away but the 11-year-old son, who’s left with a nasty scar.
All of that happens so fast, your jaw is still on the floor when the story cuts ahead 20 years and drops you in Texas. Then a LOT of events happen that require you to pay close attention to even try and grasp what’s going on:
- There are multiple outlaw gangs: the Crimson Hood Gang, the Nat Love Gang, and the Rufus Buck Gang
- Nat Love (the scarred boy all grown up) is after Rufus Buck, who gunned down Nat’s family
- He’s also trying to get back together with his seemingly estranged girlfriend Stagecoach Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), who runs a saloon
- The merciless Trudy Smith (Regina King) leads the Rufus Buck Gang to spring Rufus himself (Idris Elba) from a prison-bound train, and reinstate him as the leader of Redwood City
- Legendary marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) captures Nat, but he just wanted Nat’s help bringing down Rufus
- In case it isn’t clear, everybody but Bass Reeves are antiheroes – a popular theme of both Revisionist Westerns and Blaxploitation movies (both of which emerged in the ‘70s)
There are about 15 key characters to follow with just a handful of scenes each. And don’t get too attached, because the final showdown is a deliciously bloody 30-minute battle that leaves few standing.
The Harder They Fall excels in almost all of the major categories.
The cinematography is absolutely, unquestioningly off the charts. If you loved the style of Django Unchained, you might like this one even more. It’s that good. The film is polished to a high gloss that makes every colour and each tiny detail a gorgeous visual treat.
And if you enjoy gory gunfights, you’ll appreciate those visceral details. There’s a moment toward the end where a bad guy is shot, and I swear he just explodes. Like, there’s no person left. It’s outstanding.
The acting is also really, really good. I think every single actor in the main roles gives you a great performance, for the interactions and dialogue they had.
Idris Elba makes a phenomenally dark, layered villain. I LIVED for Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee (another strong female Western character for the list!). I also really enjoyed Majors as Nat Love, Lindo as Bass Reeves, Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett, and LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill.
But the trouble I find with these ensemble cast movies is nobody gets enough screen time or backstory. You’re hungry for more of your favourite characters, but they disappear for long stretches and never give you more than a few teasing glimpses of who they are. And no matter how much action you throw in my face, I need character development to keep me focused for two and a half hours!
And now, here’s where I try to explain my main problem – how this brilliant movie left me with that same feeling as when a sneeze just goes away.
You have all these badass individuals riding around on horseback, shooting up towns and each other. Bank and train robberies. Outlaw gangs. Yet somehow NONE OF IT RINGS WESTERN. And I think it’s because the movie flipped so many of the classic Western scripts that it left none to root it in the genre.
- The costumes, hair, and makeup are strong, but the outfits are never dirty or even slightly roughed up; they feel too theatrical, expensive, and modern, while the makeup and hairstyles (especially on the women) definitely don’t read as authentic
- The score is fantastic – director Jeymes Samuel is a singer-songwriter, and wrote and produced 14 original songs with impressive performers – but it’s all reggae, hip hop, and R&B, which doesn’t immerse you in the dusty Western setting
- The dialogue is super modern with many moments of dry or even overt comedy, which evokes a snappy action movie rather than the late 1800s
If just one or two of these things had been changed, I think I’d have been thoroughly content. Like, give me modern dialogue and antiheroes, but with more accurate costuming, hair, makeup, and score. Or give me a modern score and dialogue, but keep the rest a little more authentic.
And then there’s my other issue.
The Harder They Fall takes a bunch of should-be-more-famous Black figures from Old West history and gathers them into rival gangs and fictional events. White characters have almost zero dialogue or presence; everybody of importance is Black. It seems like an awesome perspective for the genre, until you realize that the towns run by all those powerful Black people are only populated by Black people. They’re segregated.
The real Rufus Buck Gang included men of the Muscogee Nation, and although I get that this movie is uplifting Black stories in a whitewashed genre, I don’t get why you’d also omit the Indigenous people in this alternate universe.
All of that makes it feel more like a Blaxploitation story out of a fantastical graphic novel than a Revisionist Western.
There’s probably a point that I don’t get because of my pasty skin, and I’m sorry for that. I do love that The Harder They Fall has the potential to use its sexy, modern treatment to bring in new fans to the genre.
I also love that it makes Western nerds like me curious about the real people behind this roundup of characters (highly recommend this Mashable article that sums up the facts vs. fiction). I would legit be all over a Western drama or more serious action flick about any one of them:
Cuffee aka Cathay Williams
I also got a huge kick out of the white-people town that was called White Town and was LITERALLY whitewashed, from its buildings to the dirt in its streets.
But I was in the mood for a Western, and I can’t lie and say that it satisfied my craving.