BFI London Film Festival presents The Harder They Fall; in cinemas October 22nd and on Netflix November 3rd.
The western is one of the golden children of the classic Hollywood era. However, what was once a monolithic cultural icon, now often feels like a worn leather boot dusted off now and again. In truth, most modern westerns succeed through an amalgamation of genres. For example, No Country for Old Men holds neo-noir undertones while Django Unchained plays with Tarantino’s classic referentiality. Meanwhile, The Revenant sits firmly in the one-person army revenge thriller template. These movies play with Western tools, but none fully commit to the days of sharp-shooting showdowns and saloon fights. However, If you’ve been itching for an authentic, honest-to-god Western, then Jeymes Samuel has the cinematic sarsaparilla you’ve been waiting for.
The set-up is simple. The infinitely-handsome Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is wounded by loss and on a quest for revenge against the villainous Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). During this quest, he reluctantly teams up with local marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo). The Harder They Fall may well boast one of the strongest casts in a long time. And when you add Zazie Beetz, Regina King and LaKeith Stanfield, you undoubtedly have one of the most delicious ensembles this side of the Wild West.
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Majors dazzles as Nat Love – carrying a gentle façade that he only drops when the moment is right, unleashing a ferocious tenacity that explodes on screen. Here It’s clear that Majors isn’t just playing Nat Love; he is Nat Love. In the press conference, Majors described the drive for this ferocious tenacity by saying, “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 Elba’s 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 his longing for Stagecoach Mary and a resolution for revenge through his love for his parents.
However, Nat Love is not the only character driven by deep emotion. In the premiere press conference, 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.” And here, It’s evident that the true villain of the piece transcends the figure of Rufus Buck. The real villain is the prejudice and discrimination that creates a man like Buck. And while The Harder They Fall predominantly focuses on a classic western story, director Jeymes Samuel peppers his film with contemporary discussions.
Samuel modernises the Western without distorting it by deconstructing old stereotypes with frantic, fluid energy. For example, every female character, from Trudy to Mary and Cuffie, are headstrong and brave. As Regina King put it, “there’s no connection other than who they are themselves.” For example, Trudy and Rufus are partners, not lovers. With Trudy just as deadly and ferocious (perhaps even more so) as Buck. This allows King to truly inhabit this delightfully malevolent character who makes your heart pound with her 1000-mile stare. It’s as though her bullet has pierced your heart without you even noticing it enter. She’s wickedly deadly, and Samuel makes sure you know it.
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However, 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, as the on-screen action ebbs and flows like it’s following a beat. We whip across desolate towns as shotguns are aimed, the pounding of a gun’s butt pushing us closer and closer into the frame. Where the cameras of the Western once stood as still as their showdown superstars, here they ride on 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.
The near-complete black ensemble cast is equally welcome, alongside a black director and producers (hello, Jay-Z!) Over the past year, a debate has raged on whether streaming services are slowly 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 have not considered. Questions of accessibility and representation are a focal point of today. It seems that streaming services provide an avenue to service both of these droughts in a way big studios cannot. As producer James Lassiter noted: “There’s still in-built biases to theatrical releases that I know aren’t true.”
Jeymes Samuel’s debut film revitalises and breathes new life into the Western genre through his kinetic, rhythmic cinematography and thoughtful deconstruction of the Western archetype. And in the process, he may just have crafted one of the best modern Westerns.