The Harder They Fall is a western in its truest form and an ode to the real cowboys of America. With a swagger that rivals your favorite music videos, the cast alone excites your nether regions. Regina King and Idris Elba battling it out with Jonathan Majors!!? You would think this was your wettest of dreams, but when you open your eyes, you realize it’s a nitty-gritty spaghetti western, and the buck stops there. My take may be an unpopular opinion, but the story and structure weren’t as strong as their cast. Don’t get me wrong; it gave me a special feeling in my heart to see all the melanin just radiating off of the screen and the badassery. It is important for representation, no doubt about it. But if you are reading this article, you know we have some Black Nerd Problems with representation alone. So, before I’m shut down in the comments, let me tell you how I really feel. Don’t worry, no spoilers ahead, just unfiltered opinions.
The Hateful Eight
I rush to the screening room for The Harder They Fall, sweat dripping and out of breath in excitement. I pull out my phone, promising the PR reps I don’t have COVID and showing them my vaccination records and negative test results. I sit down in high anticipation at what should be a masterpiece in film craft and acting acumen. Of course, with my critic hat on – I’m also ready to tear it to shreds if need be. The film begins with a reminder that these characters may not be real, but they do exist. If you don’t know, let me give you a quick lesson. The real history of cowboys begins as all things do – slavery. The cowboy was the boy who tended to the cows, yea the slave. But I digress in the western reality that tinsel town never wanted to depict, was cowboys consisted of Mexican, Black, and Native people and was run by women. (Forreal look it up). The point is, this cast is a better representation of a western than John Wayne and Clint Eastwood flicks could ever be. It brings a smile to your face as these talented eight play on the screen.
In an interesting choice, (possibly directorial) certain characters use a lower register and accent than they usually have. I only mention this regarding Zazie Beetz, who is taking on a character we have not yet seen her play. She is a badass saloon owner (again historically accurate) “Stagecoach Mary,” playing up her swag with a deep voice and a physicality that favors a shotgun owner. Her hair is inspirational as always to boot. It was refreshing to see her out of her norm, but I couldn’t help but feel it was an interesting casting choice. Nothing against her performance, she did what needed to be done, and I ship her always. However, I couldn’t help feel a more ‘Mischone type’ of actor could have also done it justice. Regina King hits the scene as “Trudy Smith,” of course holding her own. She sits as Idris, “Rufus Buck’s” right hand, along with Lakeith as “Cherokee Bill.” Her lower register and grit resembled a particular Boondocks character. If I closed my eyes, I could just see Huey in a leather hat and gun holster complete with toothpick in mouth, and I loved it. Seeing Regina play what I feel is a villain – was everything and gave further proof we have only yet to see the depths of her range. Then, of course, Delroy Lindo fit like a glove in his role as the ‘justice by any means’ sheriff and Lakeith, the strange muscle who uses his knowledge and skill to justify cruelty.
Idris plays our antagonist in his full-on cowboy “Stringer Bell” and then some. Opposite our protagonist Jonathan Majors, playing “Nat Love” who is still looking fit. Yes – his allure is something most cannot put their finger on – but really want to put their fingers on… I digress. He never holds back, and we thank him for that. I especially want to give props to Danielle Deadwyler, who, along with this seasoned cast, held my attention and gave a stellar performance as Zazie Beetz’s right-hand muscle Cuffee. This character who breaks the confinements of conventional gender norms is so welcomed, and Deadwyler holds her own. I have my gripes on how the writing and direction handled this character at times—forcing them to wear a dress and making light of their outward presenting appearance versus their gender assignment. If I am lenient, as a period piece, that choice is probably accurate for the times.
As predicted, the performances were delightful, from to RJ Cyler as “Jim Beckworth” – the Quick and The Dead ‘Kid’ character who wants to be the fastest hands in the west, the sharp shooting “Bill Pickett” played by Edi Gathegi down to the surprising dramatic role Deon Cole plays as “Wiley Escoe.” Now I know this sounds like the highest praise, but would you have thought any different with this cast? Where the film lacks is obviously not in talent.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
The movie begins with classic bold text splashed across the screen as we’re flown into the credits. The first scene gives us the good ‘ol backstory—the motivation for a lifelong path of revenge. The story stays the course of every classic western to a fault. Instead of innovating for modern storytelling, it sticks by the book. Back in the day, westerns emphasized the shootout, the allure of the cowboy, and the story was avenging their family, protecting their town, farm, or whichever from bandits. They always include the show of skill, a standoff, and a big reveal at the end that mirrors a telenovela twist. This film was no different, and I wanted it to be different. This doesn’t make it a bad movie, but with a cast this appetizing, I wanted something a bit more inventive, with a story more engaging than the performances.
Even when the twist is revealed, you see it coming a mile away. The quality of the film was up to par, the budget was just right, and it was all presented in a nice tight package. However, it just doesn’t wow or engage in a way that you would expect, especially after such a magnetic trailer.
The movie also takes on a level of gore resembling a – and I HATE to say it, a Tarantino film. I want to be clear I am not aligning this movie with Quentin Tarantino – not at all. Only as a comparison to a modern storyteller of westerns who leans into the violence of the genre. This film is not shy with blood, flesh wounds, and bullet holes through the head. Limbs are lost, and a lot of blood is spilled – but all of that is standard for a modern western flick. Where the film seeks to innovate is in music and stylistic shot selections. The first low camera angle brought me right back to 90s music videos and good ‘ol SWV and Da Brat kick camera sequence. Instead of kicking cameras, they’re hatching out an ambush plan. Once I took a deeper look at the credits, I noticed the Director Jeymes Samuel is known for his music direction on the Great Gatsby and his experience as a singer/songwriter. The movie is also Executive Produced by Sean Carter himself. Yup, it’s the HOV Jay-Z. No wonder I thought I was watching an extended music video. Soundtracks in films like Belly, Atomic Blonde, and Baby Driver added an underlining element of storytelling through music. The Harder They Fall used it as a mood or swag dripped over these dramatic sequences. I would have enjoyed the former, where the music would enhance the story and engage us in the characters’ plight.
Mr. Samuel also had a hand in writing the film along with writer-producer Boaz Yakin, whose notable works are the New York Indie film Fresh and the iconic Remember the Titans movie. This explains the intensity of the singular plot point, the choice of music, slow motion entrances, and the unconventional camera angles. I wasn’t mad at them. It just gave the movie a certain flair you don’t usually see in feature films and left you wanting a bit more.
It gets top marks for hitting the target right on the bull’s eye and a cast that wears the boots oh so well. As the audience, you just wish you had some skin in the game and more to write home about.