The Harder They Fall – BFI London Film Festival Review

by Sarah Cook

It’s a small dusty town in the middle of a desert. The sun is high on an unrelenting sky. The townspeople are enjoying the quiet and peace of their humdrum.

The silence is soon interrupted.

A horse trots in, and with the swagger of a villain scorned, Idris Elba comes into view and squints at the horizon. There is a bloodbath afoot.

A brand-new Western has just begun.

Directed by Jeymes Samuel, in his feature debut, The Harder They Fall revolves around two rival gangs, belonging to the somewhat honourable Nat Love and ruthless Rufus Buck. They have history together – Buck killed Love’s family and left him scarred for life. Now years’ later the young boy has turned outlaw and is seeking vengeance on the man who took everything from him…

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For a directorial debut, Samuel has an incredible cinematic language. His film is a stylish outing that honours classic Westerns by using them as a foundation to craft something fresh and new. Utilising the vibrant colours of the harsh Southern world, and adding some impressive shots, Samuel brings a visual masterpiece that is full of blood-soaked action. As someone who appreciates reflection shots, Samuel is definitely keen to utilise them in order to change the perspective and shooting of gunfight.

Coming from a song-writing background, Samuel clearly thinks in terms of music and the soundtrack includes original songs by Seal, Jay-Z and Ms. Lauryn Hill as well as a whole diaspora of Jamaican and African music including Fela.

Written by Samuel and Boaz Yakin, the film may be riddled with Western tropes, but he is smart enough to flesh them out with character and emotion. With hilarious one-liner quips, the script is sizzling with memorable moments.

Somewhere there is Quentin Tarantino is shaking in his boots, because here is a group of black leads, on a black production, set in the South, during the 19th Century, and not a single, offensive racist word is spoken. Funny what happens when you bring in new talent behind the camera as well as in front of it.

Our dashing cowboy Nat Love is played by Jonathan Majors who is, to put it bluntly, devilishly hot here in the heat of a striking sun. Putting the image of the muscle-clad actor crooning into the ears of Zazie Beats to one side (for a very brief moment, mind,) Majors is a captivating lead here. He clearly understands what drives the character. For Nat Love, it is revenge but not without righteousness, robbing from the robbers and killing the killers. In powerful scenes, Majors grapples with his love and his past and a climatic moment will forever stand as a breath-taking bit of performing from an actor destined for an Academy Award.

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Speaking of which, Oscar-winner Regina King is clearly having the best time as a villain, delivering slick lines with a blood-curdling grin as she inflicts violence against those who have wronged her. In one moment, King delivers this haunting monologue as she carves an apple, feeling like a fresh female character and an old Western villain all at the same time. She truly is a remarkable performer.

Idris Elba is good too; he swaggers out of a saloon in a red crushed velvet jacket, and leans against a doorway, and becomes immediately intimidating. But Buck, and therefore Elba, are overshadowed by just an astonishing collective of performers such as Lakeith Steinfeld and Delroy Lindo.

There are a few grumbles to be had with the film, grumbles being the adequate word here. A few lines of dialogue, especially within opening sequences, a mumbled in thick Southern accents making it hard to decipher what’s going on.  

If you were to be really picky, as aforementioned, you’ll note that most characters are typical western tropes. The one that I couldn’t shake is  Zazie Beats’ Stagecoach Mary who, at the end of the day, she is just the damsel in distress. That typical woman scorned who slaps our hero upon their first meeting in the film (because, obviously, there is an entangled history,) but then falls into his arms immediately. However, Beats’ performance coupled with skilled writing give Mary a much
Plus her entrapment sets up one of the most impressive fight sequences put in a modern Western between Trudy and Mary. It’s visceral and bloody, and incredible to watch, as the women pound one another with their bare fists. The fight choreography and the performances are staggering.

With great writing, superb casting, and impressive camerawork, The Harder They Fall is a brilliant entry into the Western genre, shooting fast and furious in a bloody and bold spectacle.

The Harder They Fall had it’s World Premiere at the BFI London Film Festival
It screens on Netflix in November.

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