Release Date – 22nd October 2021, Cert -15, Run-time – 2 hours 17 minutes, Director – Jeymes Samuel
Outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) recruits a crew to kill Rufus Buck (Idirs Elba), the man who murdered his parents and, after being freed from imprisonment, is taking over a small town.
To start with co-writer (with Boaz Yakin) director Jeymes Samuel’s feature debut The Harder They Fall feels as if it’s telling two stories. While slightly linked the tales of the two central gangs that line the film, and whose bloody scraps and shootouts define multiple fates, have such defined identities that it almost feels as if they’re separate for the film’s gradual opening stages. It’s clear from the somewhat quiet – matching many of the other members of his crew – towering, nature of Idris Elba’s Rufus Buck that he’s not to be messed with. He leads his gang with an iron-fist, slamming it down; gun in hand, on a small town which he begins to gradually take over after being freed from imprisonment.
As word about him spreads we meet excellently-dressed outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) who has been searching for Buck for years after he murdered his parents in-front of him – marking his forehead with a cross-shaped scar. Love begins to assemble a gang to help him take down Buck and his own highly-skilled, tight-knit followers. While Love’s eventually central group sometimes has the feeling of being slightly ramshackle with its varying figures – from slight love interest and tough saloon singer Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) to loud and eager-to-shoot Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler) – there’s certainly a streak of anger and ambition within them. It contrasts well with the anger that’s demonstrated by Buck in his instant resorts to death and violence to demonstrate the threat that he and his gang poses to any and all around him. There’s clear fear on the open street with someone almost always nearby – more often than not seeming-second-in-command ‘Treacherous’ Trudy Smith (a truly commanding Regina King).
Over time, as the two gangs begin to come together and the narrative is pathed along a slightly smoother, more direct line. The relationship between the pair of outlaw groupings is further explored and it allows for more engagement when it finally comes to explosive meeting. Samuel’s pieces together the action set-pieces with effective detail and fluidity, emphasised by plenty of effective editing. Keeping you engaged and involved with the piece, with each event happening in a true linear nature so as to not overpower the piece and also show the mindsets of each character. Giving each figure their moment to shine, as has been the case over the course before it. What helps further when it comes to your engagement with the unpredictable nature of fates – including for the supporting cast up against the star-studded leads – is the excellent performances that bring to life the stakes and motives of the piece. LaKeith Stanfield in particular is a standout as laid back, threatening quickdraw champion Cherokee Bill.
Samuel’s film is certainly not an old-fashioned Western. While it nods at and uses plenty of the conventions to boost its style The Harder They Fall is largely a truly modern piece of work in the genre – and not just because of its soundtrack, to which the co-writer-director also contributes heavily to, alongside producer Jay Z. There’s a strong energy running throughout it, particularly in the second half as the tension rises and it feels as if anything could truly happen. The fights and shootouts take centre stage, still being led by the threats that each character poses – and in some cases the inexperience and fear that puts others at a disadvantage. Each brilliantly-performed figure and their whereabouts has clearly had thought put into it and it adds to the detail that helps bring you further into the unique gun-slinging world that Samuel has created. It’s a well-tracked story of two very different gangs, where once their stories grow closer narratively things pick up and multiple explosive natures take centre-stage to create a truly engaging modern Western.
While initially The Harder They Fall feels slightly like two films, once the forces of the excellently-performed central gangs come together there’s plenty of action, tension and unpredictability within this traditionally tinged modern Western flick.