The Harder They Fall review: Netflix's starry, bare-knuckled Black Western doesn't stint on style
A man, a horse, a gun: There are only so many ways the West can be won. That hasn't stopped Hollywood from taking its own revisionist cracks at the genre for decades now, and a movie like The Harder They Fall — an electric pulp Western co-produced by Jay Z and featuring a panoply of Black stars — can hardly be faulted for coming out with saddles (and a few other things) blazing. The result sometimes feels like a film made almost entirely of style and swagger, a body count with a killer soundtrack. But there's satisfaction in that kind of bloody, bare-knuckled storytelling too, and in the fresh legacy it spins from old-hat archetypes.
"While the events in this story are fictional," a title card reads, "These.People.Existed." And it's true that Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) really lived, a cowboy hero born into slavery in the Old South. The actual Nat earned his stripes as a bronco rider and steer brander, though screen Nat has a more starkly cinematic story: As a little boy, he watched a man (Idris Elba) assassinate his parents at the dinner table, then leave him with a cross carved into his forehead as a permanent souvenir. Now grown he's become the leader of his own gang, a sort of grand-larceny cleanup crew. (As one of his junior guys explains it to an unhappy rival, "You rob banks, we rob ya'll.")
Nat may be an unrepentant outlaw, but he's a lover too: He still carries a serious torch for Mary (Atlanta's Zazie Beetz), a singer with her own saloon to run and not much tolerance for the shenanigans of her erstwhile ex. His ragtag crew — including the androgynous scrapper Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) and dimpled, hot-dogging upstart Jim (R.J. Cuyler) — isn't really a match for the posse led by Elba's ruthless Rufus Buck. Backed by the likes of his steely consigliere Trudy Smith (Regina King) and quick-draw shooter Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), Rufus cuts a casually murderous swath, taking what he wants from whatever small town he passes through and brass-knuckling local sheriffs with impunity.
The script, by first-time director Jeymes Samuel — whose background is primarily in music — and filmmaker Boaz Yakin (Prince of Persia, Now You See Me) sets up a lot of its chess pieces without being in any particular hurry to connect them; much of the first half passes by in episodic vignettes more notable for their great outfits and violent conclusions than for moving the plot along. (One knockdown battle between Beetz and King pulls in pitchforks, horseshoes, boat oars, and barbells before it's done.) What the movie (in select theaters now, and streaming Nov. 3 on Netflix) does have in excess is its cast's charisma. Actors like King, Elba, and Delroy Lindo bring the easy command of established veterans, and Majors, a recent breakout in Lovecraft Country and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, has the gravitational pull of a born movie star.
That goes a long way, though it's hard not to wish for a finer-tuned screenplay that made room for the layers lurking beneath all that true grit and gun smoke. Without more background color and context, the deaths tend to pile up with inevitable flair but not much effect, the timing of characters' various grisly ends predicated mostly on their place in the IMDB billing order. In the final, sobering scenes, the story does pivot from its brash anachronisms and O.K. Corral shootouts to tap into a deeper emotional well, hinting at the more resonant movie that might have been. Until then, it's happy to go hard — letting the chips, and the unlucky desperadoes, fall where they may. Grade: B
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