The Harder They Fall

“The Harder They Fall” is a bloody pleasure: a revenge Western packed with memorable characters played by memorable actors, every scene and moment staged for voluptuous beauty and kinetic power. Jeymes Samuel, who cowrote, directed, and scored the movie, has not just studied the works of the masters that he emulates, but understands what they were doing with image and sound, and feels it, surely in the way that he feels the craft involved in music that he performs and produces under his stage name The Bullitts. It’s a pity that this Netflix film will likely be seen mainly on handheld devices, laptops and iPads, because (like other late-2021 releases, such as “The French Dispatch” and “Dune”) it has plainly conceived with a proper movie house in mind, using a very wide screen to frame shots that use a lot of negative space and contain multiple layers of information that you have to focus to appreciate, and gifting its performers with precious moments where they’re allowed to listen to each other, look at each other, or ponder their next move, often while enduring death-stares from enemies armed to the teeth.  Western history buffs should be warned, or at least notified, that while many of the major characters in the story share the same names as actual people who lived and died in the Old West — including Nat Love Bass Reeves, Stagecoach Mary,, Jim Beckwourth, and Cherokee Bill — the events that they take part in are mostly made-up nonsense. They bear as much relation to reality as the events of a dreamscape Western like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “The Quick and the Dead,” and “Posse” (to name just three Westerns that this one cribs from) or gangster movies “Dillinger” and “The Untouchables,” major events of which were so cheerfully ludicrous that they might as well have been taking place on another planet, or in an alternate dimension.  But this is a feature of the movie, not a bug. The entire project feels like a bit of a lark or an indulgence, up until the point when it wipes the cocky grin off its face, embraces the melodramatic aspects of its central storyline, and becomes, by turns, an earnest romance, a family tragedy, and a quasi-mythological story about how violence begets more violence, whether it’s experienced in a saloon, on dusty streets, or in the privacy of a family home. (Three different characters in “The Harder They Fall” talk about their experiences with domestic violence.) Jonathan Majors, who came out of nowhere a few years ago to become one of the most reliable of leading men, stars as Nat Love, first depicted in flashback as a terrified child whose mother and father are murdered by the outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). As a parting gift, Buck draws his dagger and inscribes a crucifix into the boy’s forehead. This scar marks the film’s hero as meaningfully as the vertical sabre-scar on the Outlaw Josey Wales’s’ face marked him. As an adult, Nat becomes a feared gunslinger and outlaw, and finds himself embroiled in a combination adventure and revenge mission targeting the man who killed his parents. There are quick-draws, large-scale gunfights, horse stunts and chases, a train robbery, multiple bank robberies, and a couple of handheld combat scenes as good as any ever staged in a western (with unabashedly modern fight choreography, like something out of a Bond or Bourne film). There are also musical numbers, and big sets painted in so many varied and vibrant hues, and with so many modern touches, that at times we seem to be touring an art installation on Western themes. (A fight to the death between two characters in a barn is preceded by a walk through brightly dyed fabrics hanging on clotheslines outside of a barn; they look like those large-scale “wrapping” projects that Christo does on landscapes.) Samuel and his cowriter Boaz Yakin (“Remember the Titans,” “Fresh”) break the first section of the film into mirrored narrative lines, each dealing with one of the two central criminal gangs: Nat’s and Rufus’s. Rufus is doing federal prison time for bank robbery but is spruing by his right-hand woman Trudy (Regina King, chewing up the screen as a sadistic, sneering baddie). Trudy leads Rufus’s gang in a boarding action that takes over a U.S. Calvary-controlled train upon which Rufus is being held inside an iron vault as if he were a velociraptor (or Hannibal Lecter). It takes a rare actor to justify the kind of buildup that Samuel creates for Rufus: the character’s face is never seen in the opening sequence, and when Trudy takes over the prison car of the train and opens the vault door, the movie lets us stare into the darkness for a bit, like infantrymen on the lookout for Godzilla’s dorsal fins in Tokyo Bay. But Elba is up to the task, imbuing his majestically cynical, confident character with a free-floating sadness reminiscent of El Indio, the antagonist from “For a Few Dollars More” whose opium addiction numbed his awareness of his own monstrousness. Unshackled at last, Rufus returns to the desert town he used to run, and finds his old partner Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole, giving off Clarence Williams III vibes) lording it over the place as if he were the rightful owner. Rufus makes quick work of Wiley, but he doesn’t kill him, and it’s fun to watch the character come skulking through the film again at various junctures, wheedling and manipulating and double-crossing and doing whatever else he feels he needs to do to get ahead. Most, if not all of the characters have a similarly self-justifying moral code. Not for nothing do Samuel and costume designer Antoinette Messiam outfit nearly every character in a black hat: it’s not just a sly nod to the film’s non-traditional casting, it’a an acknowledgement that nearly every player in this story would be described as the antihero or villain if you made them the star of their own project.  Samuel fills the screen with characters whose eccentricity, coolness, and layered psychology are conveyed with such economy that it’s only when you look back on the picture that you realize that they only had a few minutes of the two-plus hour runtime to themselves. Although the film’s sympathies are always with Nat, a traumatized boy imposing his manly will upon an unjust universe, for the most part it seems more invested in the idea that people are complicated and self-contradicting, which might be why it portrays the jockeying of the two gangs over possession of assorted bank robbery hauls not as a battle of good and evil, but a conflict between competing business interests, each party attempting to redefine will and appetite as justice. In addition to Elba, and King, Rufus’s includes Lakeith Stanfield as Buck gang member Cherokee Bill, a steely-eyed murderer whose prolific kill record is undercut by rumors that he shoots his enemies in the back. Backing up Nat, we have Zasie Beets as Stagecoach Mary, a gun-for-hire who used to be Nat’s lover and still carries a torch for him; Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, a Calamity Jane-type tomboy gunfighter who presents as male; R.J. Wyler as Beckwourth, a pistol-twirling showboat who’s obsessed with killing Bill in a legitimate quick-draw contest; and rifleman Bill Pickett (Edi GathegI), who, in the words of Morgan Freeman’s character in “Unforgiven,” could hit a bird in the eye flyin.’  Rolling his eyes as the types of viewers that Alfred Hitchcock derided as The Plausibles, the filmmaker goes for an operatic dream/nightmare feeling, creating (like Leone before him) a parallel, alternative version of the American West in which gunshots echo like cannon fire, and gunfights become so acrobatic as to seem like an extension of martial arts. Racism and imperialism obviously exist in this film’s universe and impact the lives of nonwhite people (one Black character reveals a neck scar indicating that he survived a lynching), but not to such an extent that they couldn’t own banks, run entire thriving towns, and roam about the frontier with cocky confidence in armed groups (just as white gunslingers did) without having to fear persecution or annihilation at any instant. Samuels’s film is escapist, then, in a somewhat different sense than one in which that word is usually employed. It creates a fictional space where viewers who have traditionally been excluded from a genre can revel in its pleasures.  If there’s a downside, it’s that Samuel sometimes gets so enamored with the presentation of violence (and the buildup to violence) that the characters that he and the actors have so patiently created turn into a action figurines. And some of the storytelling choices can feel counter-intuitive or worse (Stagecoach Mary has to be a damsel in distress for a bit, and the film’s coyly referring to her as a “damsel” doesn’t make the choice feel any less retrograde). To be fair, though, this has sometimes been a problem in films that “The Harder They Fall” appears to be channelling as well.  But even the missteps here are counterbalanced by seemingly out-of-nowhere choices that make you laugh because of their audacity, then sigh at their rightness, such as the way that both Rufus and Nat often whistle or sing melodies that also appear in Samuel’s score or songs, making the entire movie seem as if it’s constantly on the brink of turning into a Western musical: imagine “Annie Get Your Gun” directed by Hype Williams. Some of the scenes between Mary and Nat—particularly early on when she’s shown performing onstage—echo Nicolas Ray’s magnificently surreal, weird. and earnest “Johnny Guitar,” a David Lynch favorite, and another Western that creates its own universe, one that’s mainly about the storyteller’s affinities. The movie succeeds as pure spectacle, turning light, color, and motion into sources of pleasure. In a time of increasingly slovenly action filmmaking, it’s a relief and a pleasure to find yourself in the hands of a director who knows what to do with a camera, when, and for what reason. Samuel, a London-based musician-filmmaker known by his stage name The Bullitts, brings a musical performer’s sensibility to the staging of moments. He and cinematographers Mihai Mălaimare Jr. and Sean Bobbitt move the camera or shift focus to create a laugh or gasp; hold on a striking images to create self-contained objects of beauty (such as a sniper’s eye-view of a target or an overhead view of gunmen with very long shadows confronting each other in a town street), and cast the laws of physics and nature aside to get the film to do what it needs to do to produce a particular feeling (notice how, in the final showdown, the sun is all over the place, and yet always where it needs to be to create an iconic Western image suitable for framing). It’s an actor’s showcase as well—and as compelling as the characters in flamboyant supporting roles are, it would be a shame if the superb work of Majors and Elba went unappreciated, because it’s hard to imagine how they could be improved. Elba brings a world-weary, self-disgusted quality to Rufus that’s so fascinating on its own terms that when you finally get the final pieces of the puzzle that make the character make sense, it feels like a diminishment. And Majors captures that mix of fearlessness and self-deprecation that audiences used to love in Harrison Ford. Nat is a badass who can kill six men before their pistols can clear their holsters, but this is not at all a vain or even particularly swaggering performance. Majors leans into the moments of comic misunderstanding, overconfidence, and physical vulnerability that define Nat at key points in the tale, and rather than undermine the character, these only endear him to us. This is one of those movies that might come on TV while you’re supposed to be doing something else, and that you’ll end up watching the rest of the way through, because it’s so much fun. In theaters today, on Netflix on November 3rd.

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