Taken on purely aesthetic terms, Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall shotgun-weds the savagery of spaghetti Westerns to the no-fucks-given brashness of blaxploitation cinema. It’s a blood-inked love letter to both the patient splendor of Sergio Leone and the urgent anger of Melvin Van Peebles. Also known as the musical artist The Bullitts, Samuel even evokes Van Peebles’ hyphenated hustle — serving as the film’s director, co-producer, co-screenwriter, composer and writer / co-writer of nearly every new song on the its soundtrack.
But Harder wallops at a much higher weight than that of persuasive pastiche. Samuel summons his own uniquely unforgettable high lonesome sound for his Western, a spiritual follow-up to his 2013 short film They Die by Dawn, which features different actors playing some of the same characters. There is as much poignancy as playfulness in this film’s purposeful anachronisms, a nigh-biblical nature to its barbarism (Old Testament, natch), a vibrancy to its vicissitudes in violent retribution, and a sense-scorching intuition for how the report of gunfire reverberates across canyons of time and culture for Black America. This goes well, well beyond dig-two-graves platitudes.
Interested less in the useless cachet of auteurism and more in authoritative entertainment, Samuel delivers 2021’s most forceful filmmaking debut in a walk. With gorgeous widescreen vistas from cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. that sometimes wreak necessary havoc on genre cliches, scintillating sound design from longtime Christopher Nolan colleague Richard King, and big-boss performances from a murderer’s row of big-name Black actors and actresses alongside scene-stealing newcomers, it’s the rare Netflix film that benefits from a theatrical experience. (It lands in select theaters Friday and on Netflix on Wednesday, Nov. 3.)
The plot concerns the slow-burn buildup to a five-alarm showdown between two gangs with matched-pair brawlers, sharpshooters, quick-draws, wild cards and respectfully tunnel-visioned leaders in Nat Love (Jonathan Majors of Da 5 Bloods) and Rufus Buck (Idris Elba, who hasn’t been this terrifying since Beasts of No Nation). An unsettling prologue establishes the reason behind Love’s bloodlust for Buck, whose long swath of criminality has those who’ve survived him wondering if he’s a man or the devil himself. Buck certainly is a devil. You can’t say he kills men in cold blood, not when he takes the time to learn their names just before putting them on the ground. But he’s also just a man, currently housed in the genre’s hallowed hoosegow in Yuma as the story begins. Samuel and his co-writer, veteran journeyman Boaz Yakin (1994’s Fresh), introduce a compelling variable to the binary. Perhaps Buck is a bit of both and God, too, creating new generations of outlaws in his own image with the best tools he has — gold-plated revolvers that give youngsters like Love a reason to pick up their own pistols. If you need a God to take down, what better actor than Elba with his inimitable intimidating presence? If you need an avenging angel to kill God, the deceptively cherubic Majors expresses internal conflict beautifully.
The internet’s hot-take machine may clutch its fair share of pearls as Samuel and company play make-believe with Love, Buck and other actual figures of America’s Old West. As the opening titles remind us with emphatic punctuation that sears the screen before any bullets are fired, “These. People. Existed.” Even naysayers would have to find the interpretations here more dramatically compelling than those found in, say, a 1990s HBO film starring Sinbad.
There’s Stagecoach Mary, played here by Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) as an industrious impresario who dances to the beat of a stomped shotgun butt … and not America’s first Black star-route mail carrier. She’s also Love’s paramour in an on-off courtship that amounts to how much sleep she’s willing to lose over Love’s obsession with Buck. Her incarnation of Mary is a woman who vows to leave when the dust settles but also likes to kick up clouds of her own. As played by LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You), Cherokee Jim has lived longer than his real-world 20 years, his fictitious fast-draw legacy flying in the face of his preference to avert violence. Montana cowgirl Trudy Smith perhaps didn’t murder people as a child in ways that gave the patriarchy palpitations and pause as she does in this chilling embodiment by Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk). Bass Reeves was the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi and arrested more than 3,000 criminals … but he probably never crossed paths or pistols with Love or Buck as does Delroy Lindo’s delightful, shit-talking proxy.
Among the few whole-cloth characters, and even then a likely composite of actual gender-fluid women, is Cuffee, Mary’s second-in-command who’s quick to quiet a fracas with brass knuckles. Danielle Deadwyler is an actress with an amazing name and equally dazzling firebrand presence. Throw in ace supporting turns from Edi Gathegi, RJ Cyler and Deon Cole, and there’s no weak link on either side of the battle line. Samuel and Yakin also give almost all of these performers mellifluously malevolent monologues of frontier poetry, King especially with a story that illustrates all you need to know about Trudy in the time it takes her to peel an apple.
Samuel is fascinated not only by the bloodshed he shows but what it suggests. His film is certainly a Eucharist by way of exploding bodies and erupting pistols. But during a second-act sojourn in Redwood, a safe-haven Black community Buck helped create, Samuel quiets the noise of action but not the disturbing hum that continues to haunt so many Black Americans. Redwood is not a hideout or a dream to Buck. It’s a renewable resource he can sap dry to suit his needs as he sees fit. “You’ve put us between a rock and a hard place,” a resident says. “How long you been alive in this country? A rock and a hard place is what we call Monday,” Trudy snaps back. After all, violence is the cost of doing business to carve out a piece of American entrepreneurship. Blacks who spent lifetimes enslaved in this country saw our nation’s rotten ideological nexus close enough to understand: It’s often what people pass off as progress.
For all of its philosophizing on disturbing patterns of American violence, The Harder They Fall definitely doesn’t skimp on how it informs the Western’s simpler pleasures. Samuel’s final 40 minutes play out with unbridled, unsparing and nigh-apocalyptic action sequences, delivered with a spatial clarity that lends even more opportunity to swoon over the ornate production design of Redwood from Martin Whist (Bad Times at the El Royale).
“Is the devil dead?,” one character asks after their (and maybe your) ears stop ringing. “I don’t know,” is the reply. By the end of The Harder They Fall, there are plenty of tombstones — some actual resting places, some symbolic burials. The idea of Black Americans sacrificing certain parts of themselves to survive in these United States tracks a long arc into the here and now, well outside the dusty proscenium of Samuel’s specific story. Both intellectually invigorating and impishly entertaining, The Harder They Fall heralds the arrival of an instantaneously impressive talent to watch.