REVIEW: The Harder They Fall (LFF 2021)
When the opening credits appear with all the cool swagger, its sharp, stylistic editing and curated music choices, you would think you were watching a Quentin Tarantino movie. After all, his trademarks and isms have dominated popular movie culture since his introduction with Reservoir Dogs. But The Harder They Fall is not a Tarantino movie. This is a Jeymes Samuel movie, and he delivers an outstanding film without the N-word in sight.
You wouldn’t think of this film as a directorial debut. Because Samuel’s work contains so much confidence and clarity in its scope and ambition, it radiates throughout, evoking familiar Western tropes with an occasional sprinkle of Blackploitation flair but bending them to an empowering will about history and representation. It’s felt from its opening words – “these people existed”, a prologue line where the absence of POC characters in Hollywood stories about the Wild West have been erased or stereotypically devalued as ‘savages’, ‘slaves’ or ‘subservient’ in favour of white saviours and gunslinging heroes (or villains). The characters portrayed are based on real people to which its phenomenal cast embody and portray. And underpinning that vibe is a conscious rewriting of that history, stamping its own authority in the process, but most importantly, they have a kick-ass ride doing so.
It begins as a story about revenge – a child witnessing the murders of his parents at the hands of Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). The child eventually grows up – Nat Love (played by Jonathan Majors), rounding up his gang for the eventual payback and showdown. On the surface, the premise is simple. But as the story evolves, it becomes more than just that.
Samuel and Boaz Yakin’s script makes a considerable effort to showcase how Blackness is not a monolith. In encapsulating the spectrum, it gives patient attention to its commentary where its depiction is very rare. Redwood – a pre-Tulsa – highlights Black ownership and community. Samuel could have easily ventured down the familiar path where Blackness is feared and subjugated, leading to the repetitive bouts of triggered violence we often see. Far too often, when it comes to Black culture, there is no respite from the trauma. Nat Love’s quest for revenge is fuelled by that persistence, right down to its emotional end where he comes face-to-face with that reality. But for the majority of the film, it opts for an introspective examination, looking at how varied and diverse Blackness can be when morality is always in question.
That’s inhabited by its amazing cast – two warring gangs with ample breathing room for conflicting personalities, introductions and character building. LaKeith Stanfield’s Cherokee Bill plays him more of a reluctant outlaw where violence is the last resort despite his famous reputation. RJ Cyler’s Jim Buckworth is “lightning with the blam blams”, oozing insane confidence with the gun just to prove himself. Its female characters of Treacherous Judy (Regina King), Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) and Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) are never portrayed as romantic interests or having zero agency for themselves. These women take charge of their destiny. It even builds a comparative case between Rufus and Nat. Elba plays Rufus with a steely demeanour, the kind where he’s quiet when he needs to be and takes action when he’s making a point. The fear he instils to ‘keep his dream alive’ of the world he has built in Redwood is what makes his performance so compelling. Majors, on the other hand, has that cool, calm, and innocent look. Violence is never far from his demeanour either, but it’s also compounded that he never has it his own way, thanks to Zazie’s Mary.
But the beauty that’s laced between these relationships is that unity. There’s a brilliant moment where Elba and King’s respective characters bow their heads out of respect after releasing him from his caged prison. In a script that is not afraid to highlight the brutality of the Wild West where nothing is sanitised or left to the imagination, it finds layers of compassion and depth where the complexity behind these dynamics are never straightforward. In essence, The Harder They Fall might be billed as a ‘revenge’ story, but it has family engrained in its heart, which makes a lot of film’s endeavours (especially its 3rd act where all hell breaks loose) so enjoyable.
And it naturally opens the door to some brilliantly timed humour that is laced throughout the screenplay. In one scene, Wiley – the Sheriff of Redwood (Deon Cole), cuts into some steak with an epic monologue on what he would do if Rufus dared to set foot into his premises – only for the camera to cut back and reveal he was giving himself a pep talk. It’s sublime moments like that where Samuel’s natural wit and direction happily plays with the convention of cinema and expectations. Whether it’s playing with the projector resetting itself or the canvas taking a breather as Rufus takes his first breath out of incarceration, the film is never far away from the fun and always propelling the momentum forward.
Knowing how special this film is, the cast brings their A-game. The story is geared towards the showdown between Idris Elba and Jonathan Majors. However, it’s the female characters who steal the show, in particular Regina King. It comes down to the eyes – one stone-cold look is all it takes when she’s assessing the situation. One vicious fight between her and Zazie Beetz’s Stagecoach Mary set to the backdrop of Fela Kuti’s ‘Let’s Start’. This is an actress who’s enjoying the depth of her craft, which goes to sum up the relentless escalation of its breathless third act.
The Harder They Fall is an exceptional debut by Jeymes Samuel, an unapologetic masterpiece that comes out all guns blazing and rarely misses its target. Full of style, energy, power, and assurance in every frame, this is one film not to be missed.
The Harder They Fall will be coming to Netflix on 3 November, 2021