Growing up, I saw my fair share of Westerns. It seemed like every time I visited my grandparents or woke up when only my dad was awake on a Sunday, I would
be forced have the chance to sit down and watch gun-slinging cowboys with my loved ones. Some were good – I particularly enjoyed True Grit, The Alamo, and The Cowboys.
But then there were all the others. The Westerns that were made quickly and for little money. Those, I have to admit, skewed my view of the genre. It has never been a favorite, even when I find the few special ones that connect with me.
In recent years, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight, and The Magnificent Seven have been able to break down that wall I have put up. I am happy to add another film to that list. Netflix’s The Harder They Fall is a hell of a good time.
Breath of Fresh Air
Using the names of real people, this fictionalized story is about one man’s quest for revenge. Yeah, sounds like a Western.
When Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) is broken out of prison by his posse, Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) reunites with his gang in order to exact revenge for Buck’s misdeeds against Love’s family many years ago. The plot is as simple as most of the genre, but the execution is vastly different.
The Harder They Fall is a bloody, stylized, and, quite often, funny film. Its strengths lie in its foundation.
The film is a black Western, made by and starring mostly black actors. The cast is truly a who’s who of Hollywood talent. From A-listers like Idris Elba and Regina King to young actors who have gained prominence in recent years like Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield, and Jonathan Majors to veteran actors like Delroy Lindo, the ensemble is one of the best of the year.
The real treat, though, is that these aren’t actors who show up for a two minute scene and are considered part of the ensemble. Most of these people are in the film for the duration of its runtime. With some of our favorites making up part of the gangs on either side, as well as those people in between. Having an ensemble so fleshed out makes each scene special because you know that no matter what, you are in good hands.
Speaking of good hands, the film is directed and co-written by Jeymes Samuel. Although he has a few credits, this is Samuel’s feature film directorial debut. It is rare to see a debut feature directed with such confidence. Time will tell if it was specific to this film and this story, but Samuel is already showing a distinct style in his filmmaking. It is fast-paced, full of energy, and is just generally fun – even as blood is being splattered across the screen. Even still, The Harder They Fall is not lacking on character moments.
I can’t say that there are any extreme character arcs throughout the film. It is relatively straightforward and the characters are who they are. But days after watching this movie, I am able to recall several of the characters by name. While this may seem like a simple feat, you might be surprised how difficult such a task can be for the average movie. Seriously – try it! What’s the last movie you saw? Name five characters from it.
Being able to recall character names is not the surest sign of success, I will grant you. But it is less about their names and more about what that exercise represents. Each character is given room to make an impact. Even when they are members of a larger group, they have time to shine and none of them squander that. They are able to make the most of the moments they are given and that helps the audience to further invest in a story that is pretty by the numbers.
Even if Westerns aren’t your thing, I feel confident recommending The Harder They Fall to anyone. Okay, maybe not if violence is a strong turn off for you. But everyone else should give the film a chance. I went in knowing little about it and honestly, not expecting a whole lot. I came out with a big smile on my face. This is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me and I am happy to have taken the chance on something I was not so sure about.
With actors who have proven time and time again that they are more than capable of entertaining and a directorial style that exudes confidence, it’s hard to remember why I ever doubted the film in the first place. Despite being set in the 1800s, The Harder They Fall is decidedly modern and Jeymes Samuel is to thank for that. What he does next is yet to be determined but I can promise you that I will be watching it.