The opening night film at this year’s BFI London Film Festival was Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall, featuring an all-star cast including Regina King, Idris Elba and Jonathan Majors. This explosive, violent western is a cracking way to open the festival, setting the stage for an exciting year of films galore.
Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is an orphaned man seeking revenge against Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) who murdered his parents in front of Nat and then carved a cross on his forehead when he was but a boy. When Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield) and Treacherous Trudie Smith (Regina King) break the imprisoned Buck free years later, Nat gathers his old associates back together in order to finally quench his thirst for revenge.
The Harder They Fall is simultaneously a completely new beast and the prisoner of a genre known for its racism and misogyny. Samuel’s film mostly adopts the traditional revenge story form of the old westerns, but by focusing solely on Black cowboys and making his film hyper-violent, manages to keep things interesting enough for modern audiences, even if the story offers very few surprises.
However, The Harder They Fall is a frustrating film. It’s stylish, but everything in it feels borrowed; there is something very Tarantino-esque in how Samuel frames shots and how much he focuses on the bloodletting. The dialogue often feels overly constructed and never quite flows in a natural way and characters lack inner lives and motivation apart from the assumed loyalty towards Buck or Nat. We never learn what brought the gangs together and what is in it for them, we simply assume and the audience has to fill in the holes to make the film emotionally coherent.
While Buck and Nat are frustratingly traditional macho western men, the women of The Harder They Fall are interesting. They aren’t mothers or even lovers, even if Nat and Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beets) share a romantic history. They are more than capable of taking care of themselves and Beets and King share an exciting fight scene towards the end of the film. Danielle Deadwyler’s Cuffee is a fun addition and her relative masculinity is both a source of humour and intrigue as she forces men twice her size to leave their guns at the door of the establishment where Stagecoach Mary performs.
But ultimately it’s Lakeith Stanfield who proves to be the most confident and comfortable in the wild, wild west. This is his most assured role to date and he is the only one who doesn’t seem to be putting on a voice or even actively acting, but simply blending into the scenery, disappearing into Cherokee Bill. There are no weak links in the cast; Samuel’s film is handsomely and competently cast, so much so that at times The Harder They Fall feels a little flat in its all-around wonderfulness.
The film also boasts a thunderous, bass-heavy sound design and soundtrack. The film opens with impressive and loud, old-fashioned opening credits that introduce us to the key players, but the rest of the film never quite finds its footing. The Harder They Fall is constantly good and entertaining, but Samuels seems so in love with the olden, golden westerns that he never really breaks free from the constraints of them and thus never elevating the film to another level. There is much to admire here and The Harder They Fall promises much for Samuel and let’s face it, we could all do with some more Idris Elba excellence in our lives these days.
The Harder Thet Fall screens at this year’s BFI London Film Festival and is in select cinemas October 22 and streams on Netflix November 3.