Musician turned-filmmaker Jeymes Samuel has gifted 2021 with his fantastic feature-length film debut, the distinctive and intoxicating Western, “The Harder They Fall”.
This is a film full of pure energy and ideas that lights a fire under the feet of those who think the Western genre has nothing new left to offer.
In style and substance, Samuel takes a well-worn Western plot (that of the man seeking revenge on the villains who killed his family) and puts his own spin on the style, making this one of the more alive films of the year.
Jonathan Majors (a fantastic actor who is carving out a great career) stars as Nat Love, a man who has spent his adult life searching for Rufus Buck (a solid Idris Elba), as Buck was the man who killed his mother and father when he was a young boy. Buck left Nat alive and with the scar of a cross on his forehead to remember.
What follows is a barrage of impeccably staged Western action. There are fantastic horse stunts and gun battles. There is a train sequence and a bank robbery. There are quick draws and double barrel shotguns. There are antiheroes and outlaws and lawmen. Each set piece has a point and moves the film along. As screenwriter and director, Samuel leaves nothing undone and finds purpose for every moment.
What makes “The Harder They Fall” even more special is the addition of a couple of short musical numbers (Zazie Beetz has a stunning entrance with a powerful song). There is a musicality to the entire piece. Characters are often humming or singing, and Samuel has crafted his film as a symphony of revenge and dust and bullets.
Western purists (like myself) will be taken aback by the near constant use of Rap and R & B music over the soundtrack. It is tricky to use non-traditional music in a Western film, but Samuel makes it all work. He doesn’t throw it around haphazardly (as Tarantino did in his uneven “Django Unchained”). There is a purpose to every song and it’s uses goes beyond just having a sellable soundtrack. Shockingly, the use of the out-of-era songs enhances the scenes in which they are used.
There is rightful comparison to the 1971 “Electric” Western “Zachariah”, a film about two gunslingers that is fueled by the Rock & Roll music of Joe Walsh’s The James Gang and Country Joe and the Fish. In that film, the music adds to the aura of the film, while keeping the Western tale believable and of its moment.
The vibrancy of Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography gives the film the light of a burning desert sun, as his camera takes full advantage of the superbly designed sets and the natural landscapes .as the characters move through each scene, Samuel and Malaimare Jr. allow the audience to take in the beauty of the frame, using every inch. There is always something to see in every moment.
As for the cast, this film could not be better populated with a more perfect ensemble. Majors, Elba and especially the great Regina King as “Treacherous Trudy Smith” take full command of their moments.
Comedian Deon Cole has a great turn as crooked sheriff Wiley Escoe and Zazie Beetz is dangerously alluring as “Stagecoach Mary Fields”.
Delroy Lindo is Western lore perfection as lemon Bass Reeves. The actor glides through the film like a badass Wyatt Earp and brings gravitas to every moment he enters the film.
Edi Gathegi and RJ Cyler have fun as “Bill Pickett” and “Jim Beckwourth”, respectively. Pickett is a sharpshooter and Beckwourth is a gunman looking to be the fastest in the West.
The two finest performances in the film come from Danielle Deadwyler (an actress with a sure future) and one of the best character actors working today, LaKeith Stanfield.
Deadwyler is “Cuffee”, a partner (of sorts) with Beetz’s Stagecoach Mary. At first she is the one who enforces Mary’s “No guns in the saloon” rule but proves to be a valuable asset for Nat Love’s mission of revenge and, by film’s end, a skilled pistolero who unleashed a big surprise.
Stanfield is stunning as “Cherokee Bill”, a dangerous gunslinger working for Idris’s villain. The actor plays it with full understated brilliance. His demeanor is calm and cool and his bursts of violence strike like a deadly snake. The look in Bill’s face when people challenge him is one of pity for the challenger and perhaps even annoyance. Stanfield draws a line for his performance and never crosses it. His is a tight and committed transformation that the actor can proudly add to his already impressive body of work.
As a filmmaker, it is evident Jeymes Samuel loves the Western and his admiration and respect for the directors he pays homage to throughout the film. You shall see a bit of Howard Hawks, a dash of John Ford, a dab of Walter Hill, some Sam Peckinpah, a splash of Eastwood, and a swirl of Sergio Leone, but Samuel makes this his own. The screenplay from Boaz Yakin and director Samuel is rich in character.
Samuel has studied the works of said directors and comprehends how these artists used the frame and the landscape to tell their stories. Samuel has an innate understanding of how to make a Western with all of the “bells and whistles” (spurs and gunshots?) the genre requires while crafting emotionally interesting characters.
Samuel’s film is a breath of fresh air and he fuels each moment with the spirit of “outlaw” filmmakers such as Alex Cox and Takeshi Miike, while keeping his characterizations intact. His is a film of ambition in a world where modern cinema has lost its spark.
It is long, long, overdue for these stories to be told in the Western genre. Jeymes Samuel’s “The Harder They Fall” makes its mark in a strong manner as one of the most original, unique, and entertaining films of the year.
Although a work of fiction, many of the main characters carry names of real people from the era. Samuel uses these historical figures to tell his tale of the forgotten souls who helped shape the West.
This is not history, but a stirring, rip-roaring representation of it. As a title card states, “These. People. Existed.” Absolutely goddamned right.
The Harder They Fall
Directed by Jeymes Samuel
Screenplay by Boaz Yakin & Jeymes Samuel
Starring Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, Idris Elba
R, 139 Minutes, Overbrook Entertainment, Netflix