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Film Review: The Harder They Fall

5 November 21 words: Kieran Burt

Netflix’s ensemble Western is an unfocused and bloated revenge story...

Director: Jeymes Samuel
Starring: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King
Running time: 139 minutes

The Harder They Fall is Netflix’s new Black Western, starring Jonathan Majors as Nat Love, Idris Elba as Rufus Buck and Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary – as well as a host of secondary characters that comprise Buck's and Love’s gang. However, only Regina King and LaKeith Stanfield remain memorable by the film’s end.

The other characters don’t get a chance to shine as individuals beyond their unique skills, save from King’s Trudy Smith and Stanfield’s Cherokee Bill. Both stand out from the other gang members, simply because of the train heist scene. A staple of the Western genre, Bill gets to develop traits by expressing his opposition to violence, whereas Smith makes it clear that she’s the opposite. Not to mention Smith shares a rivalry with Stagecoach Mary, with the pair fighting to the death at the end.

The film has a love of violence. The opening scene demonstrates as much, as Buck calmly walks into Love’s childhood home and guns down both his mother and father. The film continues this type of gory, over the top, violence throughout, albeit with little substance behind it. The violence just isn’t worth much when the story is so incoherent, which makes the gratuitous nature of it stick out. If the story had a clear focus then this violence would have been more effective.

The film indicates right at the start that while these characters exist in history, this is a fictional tale. Nowhere is this more obvious in the amusing robbery in White Town. This settlement has striking visual differences to the rest of the film, as compared to the vibrant Redwood and other locations, White Town is wholly white (including the people), and visually boring, as is the intent. To better fit with the residents, Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) changes into an elaborate dress, though the film never lingers over this fact, instead making it feel a natural part of the story. This enables the genre to evolve with modern audiences, something the Western genre must do if it is to remain culturally relevant.

The Harder They Fall presents a stylised version of the Wild West, from the gratuitous violence to the unnecessary reveal at the end

The film also wants to address audience preconceptions about race. The story focuses its efforts on challenging the notion that the genre of the Western is exclusively White, instead of fitting in with old ideas about the West. This is done throughout, with the all-Black cast playing a major role and the portrayal of White Town as another. The film however doesn’t do a good job of explaining why the town of Redwood is Buck’s promised land, or what his vision is for the town. 

At the end of the film, Buck drops the narrative bomb that he is in fact Love’s brother. This reveal is underwhelming, because while its intention is to add weight to the final confrontation between the pair, Buck explains this fact too late for it to make an impact. For the reveal to be effective and add stakes, then it should have been done earlier in the film. Watching how Love grapples with this information would make for a compelling watch, though unfortunately the film misses this opportunity.

Overall, The Harder They Fall presents a stylised version of the Wild West, from the gratuitous violence to the unnecessary reveal at the end. Its story is bloated and unfocused, and the characters are mostly forgettable. The film, however, does a great job at challenging the audience's ideas about race and showing areas where the genre can evolve.

Did you know? A train that appears in one scene is emblazoned with the name “C. A. Boseman” in tribute to the late Black Panther star, Chadwick Aaron Boseman.

The Harder They Fall is out now on Netflix

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