When was the last time we had a fun Western? While the genre has always been a place to test the will of Man against the forces of nature and lawlessness, it has also been a genre filled with fun and adventure. Where good fights evil, a good-hearted outlaw can try to escape the law and live to fight another day, and where scenery-chewing bad guys give eloquent speeches before inflicting terror, only to be bested in a duel by a quicker draw. There have been several great Westerns and neo-Westerns in recent years, but when was the last time that it was legitimately fun? Maybe 3:10 To Yuma in 2007? Before that, I’d have to say the great Tombstone in 1993, or even Silverado in 1985. So it is with great excitement that I come to you today to announce that Jeymes Samuel, the acclaimed musical director, has made a grand cinematic debut, crafting a Western that, yes, challenges the myths and faux-legends of the historical Wild West, but even more importantly, remembers how fun this genre can be.
Legendary outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) has made a name for himself throughout the Wild West. When he was a child, his parents were ruthlessly murdered by the infamous Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) and his gang, who left Nat alive with a cross carved into his head. Now a grown man, Nat leads a Robin Hood-esque band of rapscallions who make a living robbing bank robbers, while he spends his free time hunting down the men who killed his parents. Having seemingly completed his journey, Nat seems ready to settle down with his longtime lover, saloon madam Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) – that is, of course, until no-nonsense marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) comes to him with some terrible news: Rufus Buck has received a pardon from the governor, and now Buck and his new gang – including the treacherous Trudy Smith (Regina King) and the eloquent quick-draw Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) – have taken over his old town and declared themselves the law. With no one else to bring him to justice, Nat must join forces with Reeves, Mary, young sharpshooter Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cycler), stoic skeptic Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), and Mary’s young saloon attendant Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), in order to restore order and finally avenge his parents once and for all.
What makes The Harder They Fall so brilliant is the fact that, while it sets out to correct a historical fabrication, it doesn’t dwell on this notion. The Western genre has, as many people could probably guess, historically been whitewashed. While the average John Wayne film may appear predominantly White, with Native Americans as the only people of color – and always as villains – the real West was…well, it looked more like the modern U.S.A. Censuses show that the West was about 40% African American, former slaves fleeing the plantation for a plot of land they could call their own and a chance to serve as a banker, a sheriff, or what have you. Samuels chooses to bring these stories to light with the cheeky declaration in the title “These. People. Existed,” which refers not only to the characters – a cornucopia of real-life Western legends whose names haven’t reached the same heights as Doc Holliday or Butch Cassidy (hell, Bass Reeves has widely been acknowledged as the inspiration behind the Lone Ranger, and yet ever actor to play the role has been white) – but also to the fact that there were almost as many Black cowboys as there were white ones.
Yet Samuel certainly has this mission statement in mind, he doesn’t let it devour the work as a whole the way so many half-handed Hollywood gestures end up appearing. This isn’t Marvel’s ham-fisted hat-tip to its female superheroes – it is a fully-fledged, exciting story that just so happens to correct a historical fallacy. The Harder They Fall’s greatest accomplishment isn’t representation – it’s telling a fantastic, riveting story with representation. Samuels has taken the very essence of the classical Western formula and boiled it down into pure, unadulterated joy. It’s a tale of reverends and ranchers, outlaws and lawmen, of wacky schemes and corrupt mayors. You know, the reason audiences tune into the genre.
The story propels forward on the strength of brilliant set piece after brilliant set-piece, including impeccable train robberies, fun bank heists, bloody shootouts, over-the-top villainous monologues, gunslingers who carve names into their bullets, and even random sing-alongs. It’s a world where sexy people are allowed to be sexy (a joyful surprise in cinema’s currently eunuch-adjacent state), and where the #1 rule is fun. Now, Samuel’s script isn’t perfect – the heroes’ plan to confront Rufus doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (or any sense), and an attempt to add an emotional twist to the third act comes as a misguided – but well-acted – misstep. But even if there are a few mistakes along the way, and the twists are, for the most part, obvious enough to guess, who cares when you’re having this much fun?
Of course, a major reason this all works is because of Samuel’s script (which he co-wrote with journeyman Boaz Yakin). What is so thoroughly understood about the Western genre is its use of archetype. Somewhat like the modern-day superhero film, the West – a desolate land where most laws had not become widespread and the eternal battle between man, morality, and nature drove every decision – is used to pit certain types of characters against each other. The fun comes not from the story, but from how the story is executed: in gunfights, in character beats, and especially in chewy, delectable monologues.
This is a film filled with great monologues – funny monologues, terrifying monologues, heartbreaking monologues, and beyond, that not only melt in the mouths of their trained actors like butter, but also add a silly glee to the whole ordeal. I’m still thinking about one of Regina King’s impeccably delivered speeches. And when the characters aren’t waxing poetic, they’re delivering fun, badass quips. Near the beginning of the film, Nat Love, having murdered a criminal, casually tells a priest that “This man is worth $5000. Turn him in and give the money to your church.” When asked why he doesn’t do it himself, he turns, a confident smirk across his face, and declares, “I’m worth ten.” It’s a silly, predictable line, and yet it is delivered so confidently, and so perfectly, that it echoes through the halls while you grip your seat to avoid smiling too hard.
Perhaps the film’s greatest surprise is that Samuel is such a great filmmaker as well. Previously a music producer and songwriter, Samuel possesses a gift behind the camera that ranges from the editing to the cinematography to the musical choices (a talent that obviously makes the most sense). Samuel and his editor Tom Eagles (most known as Taika Waititi’s editor) have clearly studied the great works of the genre; the quick edits, freeze frames, zoom-ins, and split screens clearly owe a great deal to The Wild Bunch, and yet in service of a more rollicking, upbeat story, a la The Magnificent Seven or Rio Bravo. The editing also helps make Mihai Mălaimare Jr.’s cinematography pop, whether it’s framing Elba’s all-time great villainous entrance, a Nat Love hero moment, or an impeccably lit all-white town that is, humorously, painted All White.
Of course, perhaps the reason the editing and cinematography work so well is that Samuel, a musical mind at heart, frames the movie like a music video, with musical cues as varied as Fela, Koffee, Alice Smith, Seal (incidentally, Samuel’s older brother), and Kid Cudi and Jay-Z, who collaborate on a surprisingly terrific hip-hop take on the classic Western theme song. Each musical cue is perfect, but I’m personally drawn to that Fela Kuti usage, which scores the final showdown between Trudy and Mary (relax, that’s not a spoiler – it’s genre cliché). It is perfectly utilized music for a bloody good fun fight sequence. My only complaint with the film’s production design is the underwhelming use of CGI; thankfully, the CGI use is sparing, and the film utilizes squibs (brilliantly, I might add) whenever necessary, so it is a minimal complaint at best.
As for the acting, all I can say is “Holy sh*t.” Actually, that’s all I did say, over and over again in my notebook. Pretty much whenever any performer showed up, reveling in their character’s awesomeness. The easiest way to praise the cast is to split them up into “cool good guys” and “wonderfully hammy bad guys,” so that’s exactly what I’ll do. Let’s start with the obvious: Jonathan Majors kills it in every damn frame of this film. Not since Val Kilmer drawled in Tombstonehas an actor felt this cool in a Western – not even Django Unchained. It’s a star-making turn from an actor consistently turning in good work since The Last Man In San Francisco – every smirk, saunter, smolder, and beyond captivates the audience, making him an easy protagonist to cheer for. Speaking of stars, Zazie Beetz continues her ascendancy on the back of her Emmy-nominated work on Atlanta. She knows exactly how to exude charisma, capturing our attention from her very first moments onscreen.
Also charming is RJ Cyler, an actor in desperate need of a worthy role since his breakthrough in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. As a cocky quickdraw on a quest to prove himself the fastest gun in the West, Cyler brings the right level of humor and charm to make Jim Beckwourth an admirable member of the team. As does Delroy Lindo, fresh off his snub for Da 5 Bloods, here playing the “noble lawman” capable of alternating between sarcasm and stoic wisdom each and every frame. I was also drawn to Danielle Deadwyler’s work as Cuffee, a young man with an (admittedly obvious) secret. I’m not quite sure what Samuel is trying to accomplish with Deadwyler, but she walks a thin line rather well, and has a few perfectly executed sequences. The only member of the core team cut a bit short is Edi Gathegi as the group’s straight man Bill Pickett. Everyone else is such a huge presence espousing great dialogue, so Gathegi feels a bit short-shrifted in comparison. Nevertheless, he holds firm in his performance, and he doesn’t actively ruin scenes, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for.
Amongst our rogues’ gallery, Idris Elba is having the time of his life as a Big Bad Outlaw. From frame one, he is going full ham, and it is incredible. Elba is a larger-than-life presence, and kudos to Samuel for knowing exactly how to utilize him. Even in the film’s final moments – a misstep overall – Elba is so committed you can’t help but be dazzled. Elba is only matched in energy by Regina King, who may steal the movie out from…everyone? King has often been relegated to tearful mothers and stoic forces of wisdom, so seeing her chew through sinister monologues and reveling in her own evilness is an absolute joy. In fat, this might be better work than all of her Emmy wins and her Oscar-winning performance – and those are great performances.
It might be moot to say at this point, but LaKeith Stanfield is a pretty phenomenal actor. Few performers can alternate between comedy (his work on Atlanta) and drama (his Oscar-nominated work in Judas and the Black Messiah) so fluidly, and yet here he is, speaking exclusively in eloquent declarations and sinister soliloquies, yet another example of an ultra-cool actor giving an ultra-cool performance in an ultra-cool movie. Oh, and as an extra bonus, Samuel gives us gifted comedians Deon Cole and Damon Wayans Jr. as buffoons constantly one-upped by both our heroes and villains. Cole, in particular a star from TV’sblack-ish, is pretty great in a smaller role, playing a corrupt sheriff/mayor. It’s pretty ingenious casting – he plays the role with an air of menace constantly undercut with his own pomposity. It’s yet another cog in a flawlessly running machine.
The Harder They Fall is an effortlessly cool, effortlessly fun movie. My apologies that there’s not a more sophisticated, intellectual way to say this, but honestly, there doesn’t need to be. Movies aren’t just meant to intellectually stimulate or challenge (although they certainly shouldn’t hinder in this regard). They are meant to take us on journeys, to make us want to stand and cheer; to hiss at over-the-top villains and swoon at sexy heroes. Jeymes Samuel has made an outstanding first outing reinvigorating a dying genre. One could easily spend hours wondering where his rising career could go from here. But for now, let’s revel in the gift he’s given us, a tiny little pleasure for our eyes, for our ears, and for our souls.
The Harder They Fall is now streaming on Netflix and playing in select theaters