First time director Jeymes Samuel (brother of Grammy award winning artist Seal) takes a big swing with his debut feature The Harder They Fall – a reimagined western that features one of the best talented ensemble casts in recent memory. Samiel also serves as the film’s writer, producer, and composer. The word ambitious is an understatement here – The Harder They Fall’s success weighs heavily on Samuel’s shoulders with enormous expectations to deliver on the potential. Safe to Say Samuel delivers on that potential with a stylistic, energetic, and charismatic western story that has been told a thousand times over. From the first frame, who Samuel looked to for inspiration bleeds off the screen in tone, tempo, and direction.
As of late, the western genre has been revitalized thanks to the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarentino and Taylor Sheridan. The Harder They Fall looks and feels like a Tarentino film. The spirit of Dango Unchained runs through this films DNA with Tarentino’s stylistic directing approach making its way to the forefront. Samuel doesn’t necessarily steal the style to pass it off as his own, he pays homage to it – adding a hip hop infused flavor to a genre that normally wouldn’t think would fit in its realm of possibilities.
Based on real people – cowboys, lawmen and outlaws, Samuel creates an imaginative western when the ensemble cast is given free rein to showcase their talent. Cowboy Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) witnesses his parents murder as a young boy at the hands of outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Vowing revenge, Nat, with the assistance of his gang including former lover Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), and Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), Nat gets his revenge for the murders of his parents.
Opposite the Nat Love gang is Rufus Buck’s gang – consisting of and led by Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield). Trudy and Cherokee break Rufus out of imprisonment on his way to Yuma by way of stopping a train full of passengers and killing all the guards.
The Harder They Fall has such an impressive cast of actors and actresses that are at the top of the discipline. Everyone in the ensemble has strong chemistry with one another that Samuel uses to his advantage making this film feel intimate and personal. Jonathan Majors has almost come out of nowhere steadily working his way up to command the screen. I believe the cast is the strongest point of the film. Secondary to the cast, the influence of hip-hop, blues and soul music adds more depth to a scene that may not have benefited with out it. Acting as composer, Samuel brings every scene alive with emotion and heart that’s expressed through the lyrics of each song. With artist and businessman Jay-Z serving as producer, the music is given higher importance and attention where it may have been overlooked with a different creative mind in control.
Even with familiar and worn-out plot structures that westerns use in almost every film, The Harder They Fall feels fresh and new. The simplistic sets leave a lot of room for giant explosions and shootouts to play out in a gruesome manner. The steady pace of the film for 139 minutes all leads up to the final action sequence that showcases Samuel’s talent behind the camera. Shot by cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr., Samuel gets the most out of each bullet.
Beyond all the typical action, The Harder They Fall is an intimate film. All revenge films give off an intimacy to them. But here the themes of friendship and brotherhood are heighted by the reveal in the final act. I’m still deciding if the moment landed or not, but the acting of Majors and Elba together make it work better than expected.
I’m also trying to decide who out of this impressive cast I like more. Lakeith Stanfield who is in everything and never has a bad performance, Regina King, who easily had one of the best films of last year with her directorial debut or Jonathan Majors who continues to prove himself with limitless talent. All have their moment and capitalize on it. Delroy Lindo and Majors pick up right where they left off after last year’s Da Five Bloods. Both give great performances there, but I prefer their relationship and chemistry here.
It’s not only the big names who give memorable performances, the supporting cast gives it their all providing more depth and emotion than one could expect.
For Netflix, their films are never consistent. Its roughly a 75/25 split of bad to good but, The Harder They Fall is one of the good ones to hit the streaming service. And with a year that’s playing catch up after many delays last year (a year that doesn’t exist), The Harder They Fall may not get the attention it deserves. We all know how historically terrible Netflix’s marketing is even with a film like this. Led by its stellar cast of extraordinary talent, first time director Jeymes Samuel creates a lush stylistic western experience that delivers on an ambitious story based on real people with worn-out, way too familiar plot points.
Written By: Jeymes Samuel & Boaz Yakin
Directed By: Jeymes Samuel
Music By: Jeymes Samuel
Cinematography: Mihai Mălaimare Jr.
Starring: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King, Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi & Deon Cole
Where to Watch: Netflix
Release Date: October 22, 2021
Running Time: 2 Hours 19 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%
My Score: 4 out of 5