In plot, The Harder They Fall isn’t much a revisionist Western. Two gangs gunning for each other over past misdeeds, one morally ambiguous, one nearly to the point of evil, is pretty standard edition in tales of how the West was won.
In nearly every other way, however, director and co-writer Jeymes Samuel’s (updating a short of his own with a screenplay assist from reliable if never exciting hand Boaz Yakin) efforts decidedly tip towards that subgenre.
The Harder They Fall Takes the West with Style
The most obvious of these is the racial identities of most of our cast. Besides a train of rich types and the army men riding along to “protect” them, every character we meet is Black. A look through prominent Westerns reveals it’s even less common than you might imagine. This is especially surprising given that, by some estimates, 25% of all cowboys were Black. And, yet, Black-led cowboy films are few and far between and westerns with Black characters of any significance similarly so.
Don’t believe me? Quickly name one film and one Black character without IMDB. If you pulled a film not directed by Quentin Tarantino and anyone but Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan from Unforgiven, you have an impressive knowledge of this niche. And if you fell as short as I did, please take a look at Ebony’s piece of some highlights.
It isn’t just the color of the people in the saddle, however. Fall draws strength in tone and pacing from its musical choices, including the particularly well-deployed titular track from Koffee. What’s especially great is how the music furthers the film rather than its anachronism driving everything to a halt. This isn’t A Knight’s Tale; the music isn’t a gimmick. It certainly helps that Samuels himself provides the score as well, integrating musical motifs from the songs into the very fabric of the film’s soundscape.
My favorite revisionist touch, however, comes from the script’s use of existing figures. Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) existed, but he was an author famous for his books on the Old West, not being part of it. Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) was a postal pioneer, not a former gun moll turned entrepreneur. And so on down the line. It’s as though Samuel and Yakin are creating fan fiction about historical Black figures. The bad guys, like gang leader Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), skew a bit closer to real life, but only U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) is genuinely accurate to his historical counterpart. It’s like a supplemental kick after the film to figure out the real-life stories behind the characters.
Of course, getting a kick out of the names only goes so far. Thankfully, the film has performances to back it all up. Majors and Elba do their best work when together in scenes as the respective roles of the film. Separate, they’re not as strong but still deliver reliable work. Regina King as Buck’s right-hand woman has a gleefully sadistic glint in her eye. LaKeith Stanfield’s unafraid to cheat to win Cherokee Bill is a laconic monster. Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee is wonderful from start to finish. Lindo couldn’t be cooler. I clearly could go on and on. Nobody in the main ensemble isn’t pulling their weight.
The film’s climax only suffers because it feels like Fall finally succumbing to the rhythms of its genre. The shootout is well choreographed and has more than one arresting moment, but it’s sort of like the big boss fight at the end of a comic book film. Even at its best, you know it’s coming. The conversation between Elba and Majors that unfolds as part of it seeks to add something different, but the meditation of domestic violence and its fallout is a bit rote.
Still, the stylish climax with more on its mind that gunfire is nowhere near bad. When you’ve enjoyed a movie as much as The Harder They Fall, you can’t begrudge them closing on a bit of bombast.