Westerns had a great run from the early days of American cinema up through the 60s, but they fell somewhat out of favor in the decades that followed. each year that passes sees a few squeak their way onto screens big and small, but the real standouts are growing more and more sparse. Happily for Western fans, though, 2021 now has no fewer than three terrific and diverse such gems — Old Henry, The Power of the Dog, and Jeymes Samuel‘s vibrant, thrilling, and unforgettable The Harder They Fall.
A knock on the door interrupts the Love family’s evening meal, and when young Nat’s father opens it up his entire world is shattered. The notorious Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) and his gang of killers and thieves enter the home, murder Nat’s parents in cold blood, and carve a cross into the boy’s forehead. Two decades later and Nat (Jonathan Majors) is something of an outlaw himself — he’s not a good man, but he does target other outlaws almost exclusively — with his own gang of like-minded gunfighters. Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) is the old west’s version of a sniper, Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler) is a young, cocky, and extremely talented quickdraw artist, Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) proves badass things come in small packages, and Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz) is a shotgun-packing saloon owner with a personal investment in Nat’s survival.
Love’s path is destined to cross once again with Buck’s, and that meeting becomes a certainty when Buck is released from a prison transport train by force. His gang has been under the reliable lead of Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), and soon all of them will meet in the bustling town of Redwood City. Of course, not all of them will live to tell the tale.
The Harder They Fall is an energetic and entertaining Western ride delivering a charismatic cast, compelling characters, and a visual style as inspired by Sergio Leone and it is by Sam Raimi. The genre’s base elements are well-represented — revenge, a refusal to submit to new authorities in the old west, the appeal of open freedom — but Samuel (who co-wrote the film with Boaz Yakin) ensures that every familiar beat is matched by original ones both real and imagined.
Black Westerns aren’t exactly new — Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher (1972), Mario Van Peebles’ Posse (1993) — but they invariably feel to some viewers like a stylized, localized, non-diegetic choice for the genre. In actuality, though, that’s less about filmmakers trying to be controversial or showy and more about viewers lacking an awareness as to the very real existence of Black cowboys in America’s west. One in every four cowboys was Black, but you wouldn’t know it by the thousands of Westerns made over the past century. Samuel’s film drives that point home at the very start by stating on-screen that while the story is fictional, these people were very real. Black lawmen, outlaws, pistol-packing women, and sharpshooters, and while the film aims well short of biopic there’s an obvious joy to seeing them represented on the screen as the talented and powerful “cowboys” they were.
Smaller story threads weave throughout The Harder They Fall tying characters and sequences together, but it’s the old, reliable chestnuts of revenge, greed, and ambition that pull the characters to Redwood City. As simple as the premise is, though, the characters and performances shine on both sides of the moral divide. It’s typically only the villains who get to be flashy, but here the entire main cast delivers an atom bomb’s worth of personality and talent. Each shines in different ways leaving all of them interesting and memorable, and once bodies start hitting the dirt their absence is felt on the dramatic front. Its closest relative on that front is Lawrence Kasdan’s under-appreciated Silverado (1985) which drops pure star power directly onto the frontier to equally great effect.
The visuals are every bit as vibrant and eye-catching with the town of Redwood City brought to life with splashes of color and production design meant to capture viewer attention. Where most Westerns settle for “wood” as their town color of choice, The Harder They Fall chooses to paint the screen instead. It’s never comical, but Samuel (along with production designer Martin Whist and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.) finds sly commentary in our protagonists’ visit to a nearby white town. It’s a sundown town leaving Black visitors sticking out against the pale, and the film pushes it further by creating a town painted white inside and out, splayed out atop a white sand desert.
The action is every bit as visually striking and electric with bloody shootouts and set-pieces captured with energy and some fluid creativity. While it never goes full Looney Tunes like Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995), Samuel and Malaimare Jr. refuse to limit their camera or our viewpoint to the traditional. We move as much with action and emotion as we do with expression and intent. Shootouts are both fun and deadly, thrilling and sad, and by the time the end credits roll you’ll be as spent as you are eager for a re-watch. The tease of a follow-up only hastens the heart to beat faster.
While Black cowboys aren’t anything new, The Harder They Fall does allow the 21st century to interject in the form of CG blood and anachronistic music. The former is hit and miss (and accompanied by plenty of the practical stuff too), but the latter succeeds across the board. Samuel, aka The Bullitts, is himself a musician, and he composed the music for the film. His lyrics reach our ears from performers like Lauryn Hill, CeeLo Green, Seal, and The Fisk Jubilee Singers, and rather than feel gimmicky the spirituals and other songs beautifully capture the heart and soul of the film’s characters and journey.
The Harder They Fall is a film that wins you over with every tool at its disposal, from the cast to the crew, and the end result is an immensely satisfying movie. The Westerns are back, baby!