‘The Harder They Fall’ Review: An Electrifying Debut from Jeymes Samuel
By Daniel Rester
Jeymes Samuel announces himself as a stylish filmmaker to watch with his feature debut The Harder They Fall. It’s a Revisionist Western that mixes elements of classic revenge Westerns, Tarantino, and Leone while still feeling fresh on its own. Samuel and his mostly Black cast take familiar material and give it a boost with energetic execution. This is a Western with a constant creative pulse to it despite having some obvious tropes.
Rising star Jonathan Majors plays Nat Love, who watched his parents get murdered by the ruthless Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) when he was a boy. The outlaw also left a cross scar on Love’s forehead. Years later, Love seeks revenge against Buck and his gang after Buck is freed. Love gathers a group together to take on Buck in the town of Redwood, which Buck has taken over.
Western audiences have seen revenge plots similar to that in The Harder They Fall time and time again. But its the surprises and unique touches a filmmaker can bring to such a plot in order to reinvigorate it. First off, the choice to feature a predominantly Black cast here is exciting. Most of the characters were real-life heroes and outlaws, though the screenplay for the film by Samuel and Boaz Yakin is completely fictionalized; an early title card acknowledges this. It’s about time we started showing more representation in main roles in Westerns.
Speaking of the cast members, they are awesome and play colorful characters in The Harder They Fall. A few side players have little to do other than be snipers on a roof, but for the most part the core players are well formed. Majors gives charm and strength to Love while Elba is perfectly menacing as Buck, though the villain’s goals can be murky at times. Zazie Beetz, with her glorious hair, is fun as Stagecoach Mary, a romantic interest of Love’s who runs a chain of saloons. Delroy Lindo, RJ Cyler, and Danielle Deadwyler are welcome as members of Love’s group too.
The standouts here are Regina King as Trudy Smith and Lakeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, respectively. Both are key members of Buck’s gang. King gets a killer monologue about her character’s past with her sister and a chance to go head to head with Beetz in a clothing dye shop. Stanfield, meanwhile, is quietly intense as Bill, who is very quick with guns and knives.
The true star of The Hard They Fall though is Samuel behind the camera. The film runs over two hours, but Samuel constantly keeps it moving. Even the calmer moments of dialogue have a tense quality to them as the director guides the actors and the camera intelligently. The action is staged with vivid blood spatters, smooth camera movements, and a great sense of environment; the climactic shootout scenes in Redwood are especially lengthy and cool. The director isn’t afraid of amusing stylistic touches either, such as when a “town of white people” has every building painted white as well.
Samuel is also a music producer who goes by The Bullitts. He did the music soundtrack for The Harder They Fall himself, selecting traditional Western tracks in some spots and anachronistic rap and reggae tracks in other spots. The music is unique and welcome a lot of the time, but sometimes Samuel does bring it on a bit too thick to the point of distraction.
The Harder They Fall is one of the better Westerns of the past few years, bringing to mind Django Unchained (2012) at times. It isn’t quite on that masterful level though, with Samuel not as strong at scriptwriting as Tarantino is (who is?). As mentioned before, the screenwriting here is mostly routine besides the Black character choices. The script could have used a few more creative touches in order to get it on the same level as Samuel’s directorial vision. Still, that vision itself and the cast are amazing, making The Harder They Fall an electrifying feature film debut.
My Grade: 8.2/10 (letter grade equivalent: A-)
Running Time: 2h 19min