Director: Jeymes Samuel
Cast: Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Idris Elba, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, LaKeith Stanfield
Words: Rhiannon Topham.
The Harder They Fall opens with a clear message: “While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.” This serves as a dual-action missive for director Jeymes Samuel’s high-action feature debut for Netflix. Not only does this demonstrate how this propulsive revenge Western seeks to reclaim the historic absence or derision of African American people in the genre, but it also encourages the viewer to learn more about these characters outside of the cultural mythology and detached from their associations with the canonised White cowboys we’ve all come to recognise.
The casting couldn’t be much better for the story. Nat Love (played by action-star-in-the-making Jonathan Majors) and his loyal gang featuring the local marshall (Delroy Lindo) and sweetheart Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) are out for blood. As a child, Nat had a cross sliced into his forehead by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who murdered his parents in front of him. After years in prison, Buck’s gang have just intercepted the train transporting him to a new location and freed him so he can be reinstated as the autocrat of the town Redwood. Via bank robberies, ambushes and inevitable confrontations over entitlements to this filthy lucre, Love and Buck are reunited in excellently chaotic, garishly violent fashion.
Buck’s gang includes the calm and collected Cherokee Bill (played by LaKeith Stanfield) and Treacherous Trudy (the immense Regina King). Both of these characters, like any good villain, evidently have very deep-seated secrets from harsh histories and a period of running the gang while Buck was imprisoned. King plays Trudy with such a menace that during a tête-à-tête with Stagecoach Mary involving the peeling of an apple, you half expect said fruit to become a creative murder weapon and not the knife used to peel it.
Other reviewers may be quick to tell you how violent The Harder They Fall is. They’re not wrong, but I also think that’s what the age rating and classification message is for, and it would be more surprising if a 21st century Western was completely void of any violence. All I will say about the bust ups, beatings and blood in this film is that it is done in a way that pays homage to the genre while also showing us something we have seldom if ever seen before – a proper punch up between two women, no silly slapping or moments of hesitation. Just Regina King and Zazie Beetz at each other’s throats. Marvellous.
Via scheming misfires, a bank robbery in an eerie ‘white town’ and some generally slick action soundtracked by a score written by Samuels himself, Love and Buck have their face-to-face in the end, with a reasonably unsurprising twist which nevertheless caps off the drama quite fittingly. Though it seems clear cut at the start, by the end of the film the distinctions between good and bad, morality and immorality aren’t so obvious – what more can you ask of a modern revenge thriller?