The corpse of the western has been resuscitated in umpteen cinematic attempts in the decades since its fading from popular culture, but the rare case for not leaving the dead to rest in peace arrives in the debut feature from Jeymes Samuel, The Harder They Fall. The title may be overly vague and the film may exist in the genre most ridden with lazy cliches, but neither foretell the film’s distinct delights. Pushing the pulpiest benchmarks of genre toward ultra modern pop ebullience, Samuel sculpts a tale of crime and virtue to attempt to make us see the western in new light. While that may not be entirely achieved, he still thrills us in the meantime.
The film assembles real life Black western outlaws in a fictionalized showdown, cruising on a populist sense of American mythmaking. A bursting ensemble is headed by Jonathan Majors as Nat Love, becoming an outlaw himself in the pursuit of vengeance for parents slain at the hands of Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Buck escapes captivity by train rescue of Trudy Smith (Regina King, best in show while in villain mode), and the two descend upon a Black community with an eye to overtake it. On the trail for Buck, Nat corrals a team to join him, including his former love and saloon matron Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz).
With a stellar cast that also includes Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, and a breakthrough Danielle Deadwyler, the two factions head toward a massive showstopping shootout. Samuel has a strong eye for iconography throughout, but the finale is his most impressively structured chapter. There is some muddling of visuals and character motivations (particularly one final reveal that isn’t entirely anchored to the overall thematic arc), but Samuel shows that he knows how these kinds of archetypes work. There is setup, myth building, and entertaining payoff, with equal importance given to each stage; with more authorial voice than most actioners these days (across all subgenres), here is a piece of mainstream filmmaking that feels like it belongs to a filmmaker rather than the machine it fuels, be it the genre, franchise, or our relationship with a character.
Yet Samuel also presents perhaps the most viable case (if not the best, however) for the rebirth of the western after two decades of attempts, at least in the crowd pleasing, broad canvas action adventure sense. While it lacks the surprising emotional depths of the Coens’ True Grit remake, this genre exercise more crucially lacks the unappetizingly stale book mold veneer of equally straightforward films like Kevin Costner’s Open Range. Same goes for the eyerolling pretension of such “revisionist” westerns like Hell Or High Water. Nor is the film a drama merely in western clothing, which has yielded such greats with technicality distinction as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford that aren’t really what western lovers crave. No, here Samuel makes an unabashed, uncompromised piece of classic genre filmmaking, and a rousing one at that. It achieves something that many have tried and failed to make: a modern western to satisfy the die-hard enthusiast and the highly skeptical alike.
Whether the film illuminates these historical Black figures beyond pure entertainment is another question entirely. Samuel’s intentions are purely based in the realm of popcorn, and though The Harder They Fall excels on that front, it doesn’t reach beyond that to contextualize either the real life characters or their place in one of the most American of storytelling categories. This is the kind of limitation that keeps the film from reaching its full potential as something more deeply affecting and connected to film and national history; this is not the film for anyone looking to learn more about the life of any of these real characters, not shameful in its fictionalization, but perhaps still a missed opportunity. It’s not particularly revolutionary on any front, it’s solely convincing as an enjoyable genre fix, one moreso than its dull contemporaries.