Westerns were the superhero movies of yesteryear. That’s the first thing you’ll see in any thread on Twitter bemoaning the abundance of cape and cowl flicks, and how they’ve dominated the multiplex. Once upon a time, Westerns were the dominant genre, and all things run their course. But maybe Westerns ran their course because they were all fixated on the same archetype: the white cowboy. Outlaws of color are scattered throughout legends of the Old West, yet we still always hear about the same figures: Butch and Sundance, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, Jesse James and Cole Younger.
If Westerns were ever to reclaim their place as cinema’s favorite genre, it would be a movie like The Harder They Fall that would start the sea change. By giving us something new and focusing on Black legends of the West, first time feature director Jeymes Samuel delivers a high-energy and stylish romp of a Western that both puts its stamp on the genre while carving out its own place.
Accented by an anachronistic soundtrack featuring Fela Kuti, Nina Simone, and Jay-Z, The Harder They Fall is crackling with vibrancy. It also helps that the film’s impeccably cool cowboys are portrayed by impossibly charismatic actors. Jonathan Majors stars as Nat Love, the leader of a gang of outlaws who steal from other outlaws. Flanked by saloon owner Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), shifty bouncer Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), sharpshooting Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), and the mouthy, quickdrawing Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), Nat decides to steal from notorious outlaw Rufus Buck, played with both menace and gravitas by Idris Elba. Freshly broken out of prison by his own gang, which is fronted by Treacherous Trudy Smith (Regina King) and philosophical, yet sadistic Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), Rufus is put on a collision course with Nat. However, their feud is deeper than money. Nat has a decades-old grudge against Rufus, and he won’t stop until the notorious criminal is gunned down.
If you can’t tell by the names assembled, the cast is electric. Majors proves yet again that he’s primed for superstardom. He so easily fluctuates between fierce determination and swaggering, effortless coolness. Regina King, great in just about everything, shows us she can play the heavy, and Stanfield and Cyler steal every scene in which they appear.
Finally, Elba highlights that he’s still Hollywood’s best villain. Samuel wisely films him like the shark in Jaws, keeping him out of focus until he’s ready to strike, and when he does appear on-screen, he imbues Buck with an understated weariness that only makes his misdeeds sting more. Samuel lets every actor cook, giving them all a chance to showcase their chops. It also adds to a runtime that can lag, but it mostly leads to brilliant scenes like Trudy coolly peeling an apple while she delivers her harrowing backstory.
Samuel also shows off some kinetic camerawork as the director. He pulls the focus in and out, spins around tense face-offs, holds long takes on characters delivering weighty monologues in close-up, and expertly uses split-screen to build tension.
The Harder They Fall is dripping with style, and while the whizbang technique and cheeky script can sometimes make the film feel like a Tarantino rip-off, Samuel also ties his film to many Westerns of the past by having his actors sing. Melding the singing cowboy archetype to his hyper-stylized action shows that Samuel wanted to both honor the genre and modernize it. The costumes are flashy, and the set design is inventive, especially a visit to a “white town” where everything is painted white down to the sand, but there are moments where it is very noticeable that the action is taking place on a closed set. It’s just one little nitpick in a film that’s deliriously entertaining.
The Harder They Fall is anchored by its livewire cast, but it adds enough of its own flourishes to make director Jeymes Samuel a name to watch. A third-act revelation doesn’t quite hit how it should, and a runtime that’s a bit long in the tooth keep it from being a stone-cold classic, but it’s one of the best Netflix films to hit the streaming service in quite some time.
Could more neo-Westerns follow in The Harder They Fall’s wake? If they have as fresh of a take as this film does, we’d welcome them with guns a’blazin’.
The Harder They Fall is streaming on Netflix now.