In the annals of the lore of the American West the names of Black cowboys like Nat Love and Rufus Buck don’t loom as large as Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp. A new movie, “The Harder They Fall,” starring Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba, and now playing in theatres, aims to change that.
“While the events of this story are fictional,” reads an opening title card, “These. People. Existed.”
In real life Nat Love (Majors), Rufus Buck (Elba), Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) never crossed paths, but writer, director Jeymes Samuel imagines a revenge story that brings them all together in wild and increasingly violent ways.
The film’s story is put into motion when Love, as a child, sees Buck kill his parents. To finish off the heinous act, they let the youngster live, but carve a cross into his forehead.
Cut to years later. It’s the late 1800s and Love is now an outlaw, and gang leader. He’s a kind of Robin Hood who only robs people who rob banks. When he and his gang steal $25,000 Buck planned on using to fund a town for Black Americans, it puts the two men (and their gangs) on a bloody collision course.
As the final showdown between the hunter and the hunted nears, the film flips back-and-forth between the two groups, introducing the characters and, of course, gun fights, bank robberies, and bar fights.
Remember when you first saw “Reservoir Dogs” and it felt like you had entered a parallel universe? It felt familiar, yet new and exciting. That movie was a reimagination of what a gangster movie could be, and the first forty-minutes or so of “The Harder They Fall” gave me the same rush. It plays with many of the same elements we expect from a revenge style Western, but it feels fresh and daring. The cutting and pasting of styles, from classic Hollywood and bloody b-movies to the anachronistic dialogue and music and charismatic cast, it’s an exciting eyeful. Director Jeymes Samuel has reinvigorated the genre by telling the story through a Black lens, with plenty of stylised spaghetti western action and humour.
The rest of the film is a bit of a mixed bag. The story telling bogs down slightly in the middle leading up to the final shoot out, which has a body count that would make Tarantino proud. Keeping things interesting are the cast.
Cherokee Bill played by Stanfield, has a long scene on a train that makes you wish there could be an entire movie about this character alone. Stanfield’s laid back take on the stone cold killer who claims to abhor violence, but is quick on the trigger, is worth the price of admission alone.
Danielle Deadwyler as the androgynous Cuffee also warrants further exploration. A loyal sharp shooter, they get the job done, but there is a great deal of humanity tucked away under their thousand-yard stare.
At the center of it all is “Lovecraft County’s” Majors. He’s the engine that fuels the action, and it is his story that provides the emotional undercurrent beneath the bloodshed.
There are no actual heroes anywhere here, just interesting actors inhabiting outsized characters.
“The Harder They Fall” is a crowd pleaser that mixes and matches real life with fiction, tradition with innovation and does so with blood splattered panache.