“While the events of this story are fictional …” goes the opening card of The Harder They Fall, “These. People. Existed.” That playfully insistent tone runs throughout Jeymes Samuel’s elaborately stylized Western epic, which brings together a number of Black historical figures from the Old West into a gleefully violent and stylized revenge tale that owes more to Sergio Leone than to Frederick Jackson Turner. The result is somehow both fan fiction and history lesson: The former because it’s a fantasy; the latter because these figures have been largely ignored by history books and mainstream Western mythmakers. To its credit, however, the film operates mostly as a rollicking, expansive genre piece, eagerly mixing and matching elements of Leone and Peckinpah and music-video aesthetics and just about everything else into something that feels exciting and new, even if it often lacks coherence or cohesion.
You can sense director Samuel’s fanboyish impatience in the opening scene, in which a mysterious man arrives at the home of a preacher and his family and the music swells immediately, as if we’re already supposed to know who these people are and what’s about to happen. That should be a problem, but it kind of isn’t: Westerns are so recognizable to us that, in a way, we do know who these people are and what’s about to happen; Leone did something similar in the opening scenes of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, asking us to quickly care for anonymous, essentially meaningless characters. These films are sometimes called revisionist Westerns, erroneously — the genre has been interrogating itself since World War II — when in truth they don’t just embrace Western traditions, they rely on them. We care about this family because they’re about to get slaughtered. That’s what happens to families who get mysterious silent visitors in Westerns.
The lone survivor of that opening massacre is a child, Nat Love, who grows up to be an outlaw who robs other bank robbers. A terrified boy at the time of his parents’ killing, he’s marked by a cross carved into his forehead by the murderer; when we meet the grown-up Nat (played by Jonathan Majors), he’s just finished taking revenge on the men who perpetrated that long-ago crime. The only culprit remaining is their leader, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who is supposedly serving a life sentence in Yuma prison but is soon freed by a gang led by the sociopathic Trudy Smith (Regina King) and the gentlemanly sharpshooter Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield). Meanwhile, Nat’s gang has robbed a shipment of gold that originally belonged to Rufus, who needs the money to run the town of Redwood City, which Rufus seems to envision (or at least sell) as a kind of independent Black utopia, albeit one under his own brutal, dictatorial control. Nat teams up with Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), the lawman who originally captured Rufus, as well as his own gang, which includes Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), a saloon operator and singer who was once Nat’s lover, and Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), a young gunman eager to prove his superior speed with a pistol.
As the film has already told us, all of these people did in fact exist. And some of them had real-life stories that were probably more interesting than what’s presented here. The real Bass Reeves might have been the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. The real Stagecoach Mary was a legendary mail carrier who spent a decade traversing the treacherous Montana territory, armed to the teeth and never missing a day. Samuel probably hopes that by putting all these characters together into a freewheeling action movie, he might inspire others to look them up and learn more about the real-life personages. But he also clearly just wants to make a kickass Western, and he’s not about to let historical details stop him.
He’s not about to let his own narrative stop him, either. The Harder They Fall is filled with delightful scenes and character detours that barely hang together because Samuel seems determined to cram every idea he can into the film, a common and mostly forgivable problem for debut features. Consider: We never see Rufus’s face in that opening slaughter, as if the revelation of his identity should be some sort of surprise later on. And yet it’s all a foregone conclusion by the time he’s freed from captivity and we finally see Idris Elba’s haunted visage. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the only reason the character’s face is kept hidden in that opening scene is because, well, that’s just what they do in Westerns.
Similarly, the scene of Rufus being freed is a long, elaborate, twisty-turny affair involving his gang ambushing a train and then making their way through to the platoon of soldiers guarding Rufus, only for the outlaws to reveal that they already have a signed pardon for the prisoner. (They kill the soldiers anyway.) Bizarrely, we’ve already been told in the scene immediately preceding all this that Rufus is about to be freed — which drains the whole train ambush of most of its narrative significance, if not its inventiveness or humor.
That paradox pretty much governs the whole picture. The Harder They Fall is enormously entertaining on a scene-by-scene basis, filled with sequences that don’t serve much narrative purpose (and in some cases actually undermine previous sequences) but seem designed to astonish us. My favorite bit is Stagecoach Mary’s surreal visit to the nightclub Rufus establishes in Redwood City, which feels like Peter Greenaway and Baz Luhrmann were given the directorial reigns for a day. Could that club be a vision of the future? Maybe. Does it stop the movie dead? Basically. Am I glad it exists? Absolutely.
The film’s eclecticism is also reflected in the soundtrack, which mixes torch songs and reggae and hip-hop alongside the more typical, Morricone-esque distant choirs and orchestral blasts, all of it co-written by Samuel himself, an accomplished singer-songwriter who often performs as the Bullitts. (I don’t know his work too well, but based on what’s here, he’s clearly got incredible range.) The diverse music adds to the patchwork quality of the film, achieving an overall aesthetic marked not by unity but unpredictability; we never know what Samuel will throw at us next. The picture may not fully cohere, but it has an infectious energy all its own. The Harder They Fall is a mess, but it’s a fun mess.
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