Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Idris Elba and Jonathan Majors are dripping with swag and swagger in the same western? Sign me up for “The Harder They Fall” – a stylish, hip hop infused, revisionist yet classical collision course tale of revenge on the American Frontier.
“The Harder They Fall” is the brainchild of British musician turn director, composer and co-writer Jeymes Samuel. It’s a Western almost exclusively occupied by people of colour and reimagines it with a vibrant, colourful accelerated blend of anachronistic fashion and contemporary music.
Nat Love (the effortlessly brilliant Jonathan Majors) has lived a life driven with a singular purpose, eliminating the gang of marauders that murdered his family and figuratively and scarred him for life. He’s been successful at wiping all but one of the marauders, Rufus Black (a simmering and hauntingly restrained Idris Elba), who is serving a life sentence.
Black’s gang, including the ruthless Trudy Smith (the unfathomably brilliant and badass Regina King) and the cunning Cherokee Bill (the profoundly talented LaKeith Stanfield), break him out from a prisoner transfer train. Love must enlist his crew Mary Fields (the stunning powder keg Zazie Beetz), Jim Beckworth (the infectiously cocky RJ Cyler), sharpshooter Bill Pickett (the stoic Edi Gathegi), and Lawman Bass Reeves (the impossibly cool Delroy Lindo) to head to Black’s stronghold to capture or kill the old west’s biggest bad.
The film is refreshingly large in its scope, capturing the frontier in all its stark glory. The vast landscapes, thirsty for precipitation, look nearly ashen against the relentlessly bold colours and cuts of every fit. One of the most iconic ‘mosts’ of the film is watching Trudy (King) fearlessly straddling train tracks, atop her mount, as her blooming regal blue duster coat flaps in the breeze.
Then, finally, the steam engine driver tugs the rope horn to send that howl of warning reverberating through the landscape, and she’s unmoved. “The Harder They Fall” is filled with these moments of ‘chicken’, unstoppable force, immovable objects; who is going to make a move and watch them collide?
Director and co-writer Jeymes Samuel is uncompromising that his vision plays out in a physical reality. The production design provides a new approach to the deeply old school formal practices. Whether it’s a saloon, a church, a town, or the threads adorned by each of the actors, creating these lived-in spaces that aren’t confined to the walls of a studio provides the opportunity and the freedom to find his cinematic language.
In many ways, it’s one of a remix. There’s some terrific use of slow motion. There’s some Sam Raimi “The Quick and the Dead” horror genre anticipation and unexpected ambushes into the frame that jolt and shock you. There’s also a beautiful restraint, finding ways to manipulate characters in the frame, that’s unafraid to sample some John Ford deep focus for good measure.
Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin (the weird and wonderful screenwriter for films of such varying quality as “Prince of Persia: Sands of Time” and “Now You See Me”) find so many ways to create incredible moments of both operatic and intimate, tense conflict.
The dramatic conceit of the film is dealt with so beautifully. However, it’s the white elephant in the room. The segregation as depicted in the movie seems to, in large part, be beneficial for both communities. When you address the white towns, absent from people of colour and their cultural influence, the imagery conveys louder than any words could about how the filmmakers feel.
Samuel’s final contribution is writing, performing and producing the music – a beautifully eclectic R&B soundtrack featuring the likes of Shawn ‘Jay Z’ Carter (who produced the film), Lauryn Hill, Seal, Ceelo Green and more. Samuel’s overachievement eclipses Nic Cave’s transition from alt-rock god to filmmaker when he penned and scored the best Australian Western, “The Proposition”.
The performances are the clincher. Elba’s Rufus Black is callous and does not hesitate to resort to extreme violence at the drop of a hat. However, his stillness is volcanic, boiling and raging beneath the surface. You can’t look away.
King is the omega to his alpha energy, equally ruthless, piercing stares and a point that seems to almost whisper to viewers in every scene, “just you f–king try something.” It is refreshing that Trudy and Rufus don’t appear to be lovers; instead, they’re the kings and queens of this dominion.
The greatest compliment that I can pay to Majors is that in both “Da 5 Bloods” and “The Harder They Fall,” he occupies the screen with the tremendous force of Mr Delroy Lindo. In every scene, he’s not only able to hold his own, but you feel a joint pursuit of taking their performance harmony to new ground. As a result, anticipating an Elba/Majors showdown is immense.
Zazie Beetz plays Mary Fields as a woman in the process of self-taming. While the beginning of the film, she presents a classy and sophisticated saloon owner; their quest reveals a ferocious battle-hardened lioness, willing to hunt and protect the pride she has built alongside Love (Majors).
LaKeith Stanfield’s performance as Cherokee Bill is one of an ongoing tactical understatement. Mounting casual cruelty and murder, greater demands from Black and as the noose seems to tighten around their stronghold, you rarely believe that he’s going to get his comeuppance. Danielle Deadwyler’s Cuffee is the pleasant final surprise. A performance of quiet determination and persistence.
If “The Harder They Fall” is speaking through its depiction of the west to our contemporary time, it’s not asking for a seat at the saloon table; it’s asking for the town and the ownership of the saloon with it.