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"The Harder They Fall" is a bloody pleasure: a revenge Western packed with memorable characters played by memorable actors, each scene and moment staged for voluptuous beauty and kinetic power. Jeymes Samuel, who cowrote, directed, and scored the movie, has not just studied the works of the directors he emulates, but understands what they were doing with image and sound, and feels it, surely in the way that he feels the craft involved in music he performs and produces under his stage name The Bullitts. It's a pity that this Netflix film will likely be seen mainly on handheld devices, laptops, and iPads, because (like other late-2021 releases, such as "The French Dispatch" and "Dune") it was plainly conceived with a movie house in mind. Samuel uses a very wide screen to frame shots that employ a lot of negative space and contain layers of information you have to focus on to appreciate, and gifts his actors with precious moments where their characters are allowed to listen to each other, silently glance at each other, and ponder their next move, often while enduring death-stares from enemies armed to the teeth.
Western history buffs should be warned, or at least notified, that while many of the major characters in the story share the same names as actual people who lived and died in the Old West, including Nat Love, Bass Reeves, Stagecoach Mary, Jim Beckwourth, and Cherokee Bill, the events they take part in are mostly made-up nonsense. They bear as much relation to reality as the events of a dreamscape Western like "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "The Quick and the Dead," and "Posse" (to name just three Westerns this one cribs from) or a gangster movie like "Dillinger" and "The Untouchables," the major events of which were so ludicrous that they might as well have been taking place on another planet, or in an alternate dimension.
But this is a feature of the movie, not a bug. The entire project feels like a bit of a lark or an indulgence, until the point when it wipes the cocky grin off its face, embraces the melodramatic aspects of its central storyline, and becomes an earnest romance, a family tragedy, and a quasi-mythological story about how violence begets more violence, whether it's experienced in a saloon, on dusty streets, or in the privacy of a family home. (Three different characters in "The Harder They Fall" talk about their experiences with domestic abuse.)
Jonathan Majors, who came out of nowhere a few years ago to become one of the most reliable of leading men, stars as Nat Love, first depicted in flashback as a terrified child whose mother and father are murdered by the outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). As a parting gift, Buck draws his dagger and inscribes a crucifix into the boy's forehead. It marks the film's hero as meaningfully as the vertical sabre-scar on the Outlaw Josey Wales' face. As an adult, Nat becomes a feared gunslinger and outlaw, and finds himself embroiled in a combination adventure and revenge mission targeting the man who killed his parents. There are quick-draws, large-scale gunfights, horse stunts, and chases, a train robbery, bank robberies, and a couple of hand-to-hand brawls with fists, feet and makeshift weapons that are as good as any ever staged in a Western (with unabashedly modern fight choreography, though—like something out of a Bond or Bourne film). There are also musical numbers, and big sets painted in so many varied and vibrant hues and with so many modern touches that at times we seem to be touring an art installation on Western themes. A fight to the death between two characters in a barn is preceded by a walk through brightly dyed fabrics hanging on clotheslines; they look like those large-scale "wrapping" projects that Christo does on landscapes.
Samuel and his co-writer Boaz Yakin ("Remember the Titans," "Fresh") break the first section of the film into mirrored narratives, each dealing with one of the main criminal gangs: Nat's and Rufus'. At the start of the story proper, Rufus is doing federal prison time for bank robbery, but gets sprung by his right-hand woman Trudy (Regina King, chewing up the screen as a sadistic, sneering baddie).
Trudy then leads Rufus' gang in a boarding action that takes over a U.S. Calvary-controlled train where Rufus is being held inside an iron vault as if he were a velociraptor (or Hannibal Lecter). It takes a rare actor to justify the buildup the director gives Rufus. The character's face is not seen in the opening sequence and doesn’t appear for 20 more minutes. When Trudy takes over the prison car and opens the vault door, the movie lets us search the darkness for a glimpse of him, like infantrymen with binoculars looking for Godzilla's dorsal fins in Tokyo Bay. Elba makes the wait worth it, imbuing his cynical, confident character with a free-floating sadness reminiscent of El Indio, the antagonist from "For a Few Dollars More" whose opium addiction numbed his awareness of his own monstrousness.
Unshackled at last, Rufus returns to the desert town he used to run, and finds his old partner Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole, giving off Clarence Williams III vibes) lording it over the place as if he were the rightful owner. Rufus makes quick work of Wiley, but he doesn't kill him, and it's fun to watch the character come skulking through the film again at various junctures, wheedling and manipulating and double-crossing and doing whatever else he feels he needs to do to get ahead. Most, if not all of the characters have a similarly self-justifying code. Not for nothing do Samuel and costume designer Antoinette Messam outfit nearly every character in a black hat: it's not just a nod to the film's non-traditional casting, it's an acknowledgement that nearly every player in this story would be described as the antihero or villain if you made them the star of their own project.
Samuel fills the screen with characters whose eccentricity, coolness, and layered psychology are conveyed with such economy that it's only when you look back on the picture that you realize that they only had a few minutes of the two-plus hour runtime to themselves. Although the film's sympathies are always with Nat, a traumatized boy imposing his manly will upon an unjust universe, for the most part it seems more invested in the idea that people are complicated and self-contradicting. And it portrays the jockeying of the two gangs over possession of assorted bank robbery hauls not as a battle between good and evil, but a competition between rival businesses trying to conquer the same market.
In addition to Elba, and King, Rufus's gang includes LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, whose prolific kill record is undercut by rumors that he shoots his enemies in the back. Backing up Nat, we have Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary, a gun-for-hire who used to be Nat's lover and still carries a torch for him; Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, a Calamity Jane-type tomboy gunfighter who presents as male; RJ Cyler as Beckwourth, a pistol-twirling showboat who's obsessed with killing Bill in a legitimate quick-draw contest; and rifleman Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), who, in the words of Morgan Freeman's character in "Unforgiven," could hit a bird in the eye flyin.'
Rolling his eyes as the types of viewers that Alfred Hitchcock derided as The Plausibles, the filmmaker goes for an operatic dream/nightmare feeling, creating (like Leone before him) a parallel, alternative version of the American West in which pistol shots reverberate like cannon fire, and gunfights become so acrobatic as to seem like an extension of martial arts.
Racism, genocide, and imperial arrogance exist in this film's universe and impact the lives of nonwhite people (one Black character reveals a neck scar indicating that he survived a lynching) but not to such an extent that they can't own bars, nightclubs, and banks, run thriving towns, and roam the frontier with cocky confidence in armed groups (just as white gunslingers did) without having to fear persecution or annihilation at any moment. Samuels' film is escapist, then, in a different sense than one in which that word is usually employed. The movie creates a fictional space where viewers who have traditionally been excluded from a genre can revel in its pleasures.
If there's a downside, it's that Samuel sometimes gets so enamored with the presentation of violence (and the buildup to violence) that the characters turn into action figurines. And some of the storytelling choices can feel counter-intuitive or worse (Stagecoach Mary has to be a damsel in distress for a bit, and the film's coyly referring to her as a "damsel" doesn't make the choice feel any less retrograde). To be fair, though, this has sometimes been a problem in films that "The Harder They Fall" appears to be channelling as well.
But even the missteps here are counterbalanced by seemingly out-of-nowhere choices that make you laugh because of their audacity, then sigh at their rightness, such as the way that both Rufus and Nat often whistle or sing melodies that also appear in Samuel's score or songs, making the movie seem as if it's constantly on the brink of turning into a Western musical: imagine "Annie Get Your Gun" directed by Hype Williams. Some of the scenes between Mary and Nat, particularly early on when she's shown performing onstage, echo Nicolas Ray's surreal but earnest "Johnny Guitar", a David Lynch favorite, and another Western that creates its own universe that is mainly about the storyteller's affinities.
The movie succeeds as pure spectacle, turning light, color, and motion into sources of pleasure. In a time of increasingly slovenly action filmmaking, it's a relief to find yourself in the hands of a director who knows what to do with a camera. Samuel brings a musical performer's sensibility to the staging of big moments. He and cinematographers Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. and Sean Bobbitt change angles or shift focus to create laughs or gasps; hold on striking images to create self-contained objects of beauty (such as a sniper's eye-view of a target or an overhead view of gunmen with very long shadows confronting each other in a street), and cast the laws of nature aside to get the movie to do what it needs to do to produce a certain feeling. Notice how, in the final showdown, the sun is all over the place, and yet always where it needs to be to create an iconic Western image, suitable for framing.
It's an actor's showcase as well—and as compelling as the actors in flamboyant supporting roles are, it would be a shame if the subtle, grounding work of Majors and Elba went unappreciated, because it's hard to imagine how their performances could be better. Elba brings a world-weary, self-disgusted quality to Rufus that is so fascinating on its own terms that when we finally get the pieces of the puzzle that unlock the core of the character's personality, it feels like a diminishment.
And Majors captures that mix of fearlessness and self-deprecation that audiences used to love in Harrison Ford heroes. Nat is a badass who can kill six men before their pistols can clear their holsters, but this is not a vain or even particularly swaggering performance. Majors leans into instances of comic misunderstanding, romantic longing, overconfidence, and physical vulnerability that define Nat at key points in the tale. Rather than undermine the character, these moments only endear him to us.
This is one of those movies that might come on TV while you're supposed to be doing something else, and that you'll end up watching the rest of the way through, because it's so much fun.
On Netflix today.
Jonathan Majors as Nat Love
Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary
Idris Elba as Rufus Buck
Regina King as Trudy Smith
Delroy Lindo as Bass Reeves
LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill
Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett
Deon Cole as Wiley Escoe
RJ Cyler as Jim Beckwourth