The Harder They Fall

The Harder They Fall – Samuel breathes new life into the Western genre


BFI London Film Festival presents The Harder They Fall; in cinemas on October 22nd and on Netflix on November 3rd. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Western is one of the golden children of the Hollywood era. Once a monolithic cultural icon, the genre is now a worn leather boot dusted off now and again. Modern Westerns mix things up from No Country for Old Men’s neo-noir undertones to Django Unchained’s pulpy Tarantino referentiality and The Revenant’s one-man army revenge thriller. These all play with tools of the Western, but none fully commit to the days of sharp-shooting showdowns and saloon fights.  But if you’ve been itching for a true, honest-to-god Western, then Jeymes Samuel has the cinematic sarsaparilla you’ve been thirsting for.

The set-up is simple: the infinitely-handsome Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is wounded from loss and on a quest for revenge against the villainous Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Love reluctantly teams up with local marshal Bass Reeves, played by the incomparable Delroy Lindo, as revenge comes into view. Add Zazie Beetz, Regina King, and LaKeith Stanfield, and you have one of the most delicious ensembles this side of the West.

Majors’ dazzles – he carries a gentle façade that only drops when the moment is right. It’s clear that Majors isn’t playing Nat Love; he is Nat Love. In the press conference, Majors described the drive for this ferocious tenacity comes from the fact that “equality is the driving force for Nat – he wants to make it even however he can. If someone robs a bank, he’ll rob them.” The result is a Hamlet-on-the-range deconstruction of the cowboy – everything Nat does is driven by that need for equality, carved into him both metaphorically and literally by the actions of Idris’ Buck. As Producer James Lassiter put it, The Harder They Fall is “more than a Western, it’s a love story”, and we see that with Nat. His actions are divided by a longing for a life with Stagecoach Mary and a resolution of his need for revenge.

Just as Love is driven by something, as is his enemy. Idris described Rufus as “ruthless but progressive in thought, trying to create a safe space for Black people at a time where they had nowhere, albeit ruthlessly.” It’s evident that the true villain of this is more than Rufus Buck – it’s the prejudices and discrimination that create villains like himself. While The Harder They Fall is predominantly focused on a classical story, Samuel peppers in relevant contemporary commentary, whether it be through humour or a simple look, or gesture.

Samuel modernises the Western without distorting it by deconstructing old stereotypes and invigorating his camera with a frantic, fluid energy. Every female figure, Trudy, Mary, and Danielle Deadwyler’s Cuffie, all act on their own behalf; for once, their existences are not born out of a child or man. As Regina King puts it – “there’s no connection other than who they are themselves.” Trudy and Rufus are partners, not lovers; she’s as deadly and ferocious, perhaps even more so, than he is. This allows King to truly envelope herself into this malevolent presence that pounds your heart with her 1000-mile stare, as though her bullet has pierced your heart before you know it. She’s wickedly deadly, and Samuel makes sure everyone knows it.

What truly invigorates this Western with a modern flavour is Sean Bobbit and Mihai Mălaimare Jr.’s cinematography. There’s a constant rhythm to every camera shot, ebbing and flowing like Samuel directs the entire film on a beat. We whip across desolate towns as shotguns are aimed, the pounding thud of a gun’s butt pushing us closer and closer into the frame. Where once the cameras of the Western were as deadly still as their showdown superstars, now they ride like the wind, creating a mesmerising and thrilling feast for the eyes. Scenes play out like songs, visual verses leading up to a cinematic chorus that sweeps you off your feet.

What’s most unique about this Western is obvious – it’s a near-complete black ensemble alongside black directors and producers (hello, Jay-Z!) In the past year, a debate has raged on whether streaming services are killing cinema, and to that, Samuel had to say: “Netflix blasts it all around the world at once. I don’t think any other company would’ve made The Harder They Fall.” It’s a fascinating perspective and one many perhaps hadn’t considered. Questions of accessibility and representation are a focal point today, and it seems that streaming services provide an avenue to service both of those droughts that big studios still cannot, as producer James Lassiter noted: “There’s still in-built biases to theatrical releases.”

Stunningly, this debut film from Jeymes Samuel both revives and instils new life into the Western genre. Through his kinetic, rhythmic cinematography alongside his thoughtful deconstructions of our Western archetypes, he’s crafted one of the best modern Westerns of our time.


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