Horse operas aren’t for everyone. Hell, they aren’t even technically for horses. But I’ve got good news for anyone who has ever slurped a spaghetti-western, eaten up an oater, or injected a shoot-em-up: The Harder They Fall is the absolute shit.
Sure, cowboy cliches and tropes of revenge, fame, and peril frolic through fields like untamed, unsaddled mustangs. But the whole thing feels vibrant, fresh, and new, thanks to a focus on real-life historical Black outlaws and a heaping helping of style from writer/director Jeymes Samuel. Even if it’s a bit heavy on the flair and light on substance, there’s nothing wrong with being “All hat, no cattle” when the hat looks cute AF and red meat is bad for you.
A revenge tale that essentially rides the rails straight from point A to point B, only stopping to toot a wicked whistle now and again, The Harder They Fall follows Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) and his gang on a quest for revenge against Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) and his loyal malcontents. Both posses are peppered with pistoleers, like Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler), whose declaration that he’s “lightning with the blam blams” is an early verbal contract promising that the film will, indeed, be a goddamned delight. Beckworth is on a collision course with Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), much in the same way that Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz) is destined to square up with Trudy Smith (Regina King). Like a perversion of a Newtonian law of physics, the magnetism that relentlessly pulls future duelists towards one another is what holds Westerns together like gravity.
The whole thing is little more than the promise of gunfights followed by gunfights themselves. It’s all posturing and monologuing, explicit exposition, and lightning blam blams: a trifecta of fun executed at ten paces. The limited narrative twists aren’t so much real reveals or true surprises but refreshing-enough wrinkles. It’s amazing what you can get away with when you have a cast this good. I’m sorry, do you not want to watch Elba as a near-mythical death dealer, King as his hard-as-nails tortured beloved, Majors as either a good bad guy or a bad good guy, and Stanfield as a methodical murderer?
Samuel drops needles and cuts jumps as well as any Quentin or Edgar out there. But while there is a respect for the genre’s predecessors, The Harder They Fall doesn’t feel trapped within its own homage. It is not clip art of made from other artists or a sequence of references shaped to look like a movie. It is a redrawing of a classic painting, a still-life of a familiar subject in spray-painted graffiti.
People far smarter than me can speak to the cultural significance of inverting racist expectations or, alternatively, whether the western itself is so inherently tainted that slapping a fresh coat of paint on the wagon doesn’t cover the Native blood on the wheels. What I can say is that The Harder They Fall is one of the most legitimately entertaining, slick and sleek blockbusters of the year. It is, to paraphrase the bard, “lightning with the blam blams.”
Grade = A
Other Critical Voices to Consider
K. Austin Collins at Rolling Stone says “The Harder They Fall is a good piece of wish-fulfillment pop. It knows what it is. It’s accomplished enough not to be mistaken for what it isn’t trying to be.”
Aisha Jordan at Black Nerd Problems says “The real history of cowboys begins as all things do – slavery. The cowboy was the boy who tended to the cows, yea the slave. But I digress in the western reality that tinsel town never wanted to depict, was cowboys consisted of Mexican, Black, and Native people and was run by women. (Forreal look it up). The point is, this cast is a better representation of a western than John Wayne and Clint Eastwood flicks could ever be. It brings a smile to your face as these talented eight play on the screen.”
Dwight Brown at Dwight Brown Ink says “This cowboy tale is unapologetically strong and Afrocentric, a la Black Panther. It’s as cutting edge as it is retro. Expect action-loving Netflix watchers to gather around TVs like curious townsfolk eyeballing the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. If you like Westerns as much as you like black swagger—this one is calling your name.”