Writer: Jeymes Samuel and Boaz Yakin
Director: Jeymes Samuel
Shaking up the cowboy film is something that happens every few years. Tarantino did it with the Hateful 8 and Django Unchained, while John Maclean looked for character development and psychological insight with the very classy Slow West. Now, debut director Jeymes Samuel spins the Western once more with his high octane, music-infused The Harder They Fall which opens the London Film Festival in some style with a rarely told story of African-American cowboys, a rough, merciless bunch who discover, the bigger they are…
Branded aged 10 by the man that shot both his parents in front of him, Nat Love grows up to be a fierce gang leader seeking to punish those who wronged him. When his old enemy Rufus Buck is freed from prison, a play-off begins between the rival cowboys as bank robberies, divided loyalties and lost love set in motion a chain of events that unite the man with a cross carved into his face with the cowboy who mutilated him.
Almost all Westerns are revenge thrillers, but Samuel uses Nat’s quest to shape a bigger story about the consequences of living a dangerous life with the threat of mortality hanging over them all. Yet, live fast and die young is the least of it, and Samuel with co-writer Boaz Yakin craft a stylised thrill-ride that takes all of the markers of the genre – the shoot-outs, the saloon, a meeting at high noon and plenty of hijacking – and gives them a fresh coat of paint using fast-paced editing and a carefully chosen soundtrack that includes reggae, grime and even some souped-up soul to underscore the action in a movie that relishes its period-contemporary approach.
That this is an untold story is both front and centre, yet the film also shows men and women working together in outlaw groups, displaying absolute equality in their tendencies to violence, often without qualm, and doing what they must to survive. There are references to segregated societies that confine the African-American cowboys to particular towns and a couple of intrusions into predominantly white areas are managed with a comical flair that makes for a fun and prissy contrast.
Samuel’s focus though is largely on the action with a hint of character depth that shapes an emotional finale. The story does sag in the middle almost inevitably as the love affair between Nat and Stagecoach Mary becomes overly repetitive which is the consequence of such high energy set pieces that make the quieter moments feel lacklustre. The moral ambiguities that Samuel and Yakin introduce are engaging and could be better developed as individuals explore the accumulating guilt of their lifestyle, as well as good intentions to create safe towns for people brought about by the wrong methods.
As Nat, Jonathan Majors holds the film entirely and brings expression to his character arc that builds nicely as he starts to care about more than vengeance. Regina King, who showed her fantastic One Night in Miami ar last year’s Festival, is ruthless as ‘Treacherous’ Trudy Smith, displaying a detachment and recourse to violence that outstrips her male gang-mates, while a slightly underused Idris Elba is magnificent as Rufus Buck, a bad guy with a purpose whose persona commands respect and fear from his followers.
The Harder They Fall has its faults, but this Netflix film is a worthy successor to Mangrove and Widows as a ferocious Festival opener. As the cast explained, this is a Western for people who don’t like Westerns, taking real people and placing them in a sassy fictional story that disrupts a classic and, in so many ways, gives it a whole new lease of life.
The Harder They Fall is screening at the London Film Festival | Image: Netflix.