Runtime: 131 minutes
Director: Jeymes Samuel
Writers: Jeymes Samuel & Boaz Yakin
Stars: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, Deon Cole, Damon Wayons Jr
By Calum Cooper
During the Opening Gala for this year’s London Film Festival, the cast and crew of “The Harder They Fall” (2021) discussed the importance of presenting history under threat from erasure. Director Jeymes Samuel, best known by his stage name The Bullitts, called the film “a celebration of a wider viewpoint”. This is but one of the many reasons to catch “The Harder They Fall”, the latest Western which is as historically vital as it is chaotically fun. It baffles me that this is Samuel’s debut as a filmmaker. He has crafted something with the confidence and energy of a veteran.
The film opens with a humorous prelude: “these events are fictional, but these characters existed.” Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin drew inspiration from various historical African-American cowboys to craft their story, going as far as using their names. One such figure is Nat Love (Jonathan Majors of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (2019)). In the context of the film, Nat is a cowboy who is getting his old gang back together. The man who murdered his parents, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), has escaped prison and is re-assembling his own gang. Nat finally wants to take this opportunity to have his revenge. The film boasts an incredible black ensemble cast, including, but not limited to, Regina King, Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo, RJ Cyler and Lakeith Stanfield.
If any word could describe “The Harder They Fall” it is dynamic. This is one of the most kinetically charged Westerns of the past decade, let alone this year. Jeymes Samuel left quite the impression on this reviewer during interviews with his passionate enthusiasm and irresistible charisma. His personality shines through in this film. The action; the music; the overt and subtle character interactions. All of them accumulate into an adrenaline-charged spectacle where everyone feels on an equal footing, and the themes on fellowship and retribution slowly reveal themselves from under the barrage of gunslinging awe.
“If any word could describe “The Harder They Fall” it is dynamic. This is one of the most kinetically charged Westerns of the past decade, let alone this year.”
Each character feels as vibrant as the next. There’s a lot of talent to juggle on screen, so Samuel and Yakin do something especially clever. None of the characters, outside of Love and Buck, have a whole lot in the way of backstory, but they don’t especially need them. I believe it was Robert McKee who once said that action reveals character. Samuel and Yakin seem to have taken this to heart, as they give every character certain goals and ticks that set them apart from everyone else. For example, RJ Cyler’s character is a cocky trigger-happy boy who makes performances out of his duels. Meanwhile Lakeith Stanfield’s character puts on a facade of being a pacifist, before shooting his opponents in the back.
These are little nuggets of information about each character that tell us rather a lot about them, while imbuing them with significant personality. Regina King’s Treacherous Trudy Smith gets an especially great scene where she tells a story of her childhood that colours in a lot of the blanks surrounding her snarky, vicious persona. Having all of these fun characters bounce off of each other is nothing short of movie magic, both in a subtextual and surface level sense. And the sharp dialogue only adds to the sense of dimension, as well as delivering great moments of humour. The actors are all having a blast working off of each other, especially as no one overshadows each other. Even though Majors and Elba are the leads, the likes of King, Beetz, Stanfield and Danielle Deadwyler feel just as important. This serves Samuel’s statement on the film, for it showcases black people and women being on equal footings with each other, as well as being as important a part of cowboy history as your usual suspects, be it Billy the Kid or Butch Cassidy.
“It’s giddily exciting, with arguably some of the best action of the year thus far. Yet it is the overt messages on equality and diversity that give the film its singularity.”
The action is something to behold in “The Harder They Fall”, a very apt title given its slickness. This is a film full of creativity, boasting a wide array of shots and cuts, be it dolly zooms, split screens or slow-motion. The editing team, led by Tom Eagles, deserves an Oscar nomination, for this is some incredibly stylish work, both in its ability to excite and shock alike. It’s dripping with combat-ready grit, matching the violent, relentless nature of its setting brilliantly. Often accompanying this is a score just as thrilling. Samuel, as well as directing, producing, and co-writing the film, composed the music, as one would expect given his background in the industry. His music is as gnarly and energised as his direction. Even as people are getting their brains blown out, you find yourself tapping your foot to the beat of the music.
Much like its setting, the film is a wild time with eccentricity to match its ferocity. It’s giddily exciting, with arguably some of the best action of the year thus far. Yet it is the overt messages on equality and diversity that give the film its singularity. It’s hard to recall any Western film with such a predominantly black cast, or where the women are treated as equals rather than damsels in distress. That makes “The Harder They Fall” a refreshing film as well as an exhilarating one. Just the mere fact that it may bring attention to a glossed over part of black history makes it worthy of merit, even if it did have to go the way of “Amadeus” (1984) in using real people to tell a fictional – albeit very entertaining – tale. The film does end on a somewhat puzzling note, with a character reveal that may have said some interesting things thematically, but narratively does very little. Fortunately, it doesn’t detract from the exuberant characters and oddly glorious carnage that personify this work.
At the gala, Samuel talked of the days as a youth when he would sneak into the London Film Festival to see new releases. Coming back to his home town’s festival as the opening filmmaker must be something of a dream come true, especially with how much of an absolute belter “The Harder They Fall” is, both as a piece of popcorn entertainment and as a champion for representation. While being interviewed, Idris Elba talked of how true equality will be achieved when films with all-black casts are commonplace rather than seemingly rare events. With movies like “The Harder They Fall” we are one step closer to that reality.