The Old West was a tough place, and not for the faint of heart. It was filled with mean varmints, cold-blooded killers and all-around bastards. Part of the appeal of Westerns has always been their ability to tap into that simplistic, macho mindset — the sense that, back in the day, a man had to survive by his wits and his quick draw, as opposed to worrying about wimpy things like feelings or emotions. The real world is complicated and evolving, but in Westerns you know where you stand. A bullet settles all disputes, and the victor gets to ride off into the sunset.
What’s initially appealing about The Harder They Fall, which opens in theaters Friday before coming to Netflix on November 3rd, is how director and co-writer Jeymes Samuel tries to shake up the formula. Telling a fictionalized tale involving several prominent Black cowboys of the 19th century, the film seeks to correct the misconception, further cemented by Hollywood, that the Old West was only populated by whites. “The Harder They Fall will put something into our culture that has been missing forever, as most every character in this film is based on a character that really existed,” Samuel, a lifelong Western fan, says in the movie’s press notes. “I just assembled them like Black Gods, and put them in one space at one time.”
It’s a clever Avengers-like idea — and lord knows he’s got the cast to deliver the goods — but Samuel’s vision of his Black heroes and villains ends up being a little too monochromatic to be as compelling as it ought to be. Maybe The Harder They Fall’s characters are gods, but they spend so much time trying to be badasses that they’re hardly any fun.
As is often the case in Westerns, The Harder They Fall is a story of vengeance. When he was only a boy, Nat Love watched the sadistic Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) kill his parents before carving a cross into his forehead. Now an adult, Nat (Jonathan Majors) still carries the emotional and literal scar, running a gang that robs robbers. (Honestly, that sounds like a pretty smart scheme: Let those other guys risk their lives holding up a bank and then you swoop in later to swipe the dough.) But to his shock, Nat learns that the incarcerated Rufus has been let out of jail early, and so he gathers his crew, including the beautiful singer Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), to kill Rufus. That won’t be easy, though, since Rufus has his own formidable gang, led by the lethal Trudy Smith (Regina King) and the steely assassin Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). A showdown awaits, which as you might guess will culminate in an all-out gun battle on Main Street.
Samuel, who’s also a musician, gives his big-screen debut a hip-hop-flavored atmosphere. (Jay-Z is one of the producers and also contributes to the soundtrack.) And The Harder They Fall is best when it’s skewering Western tropes, imagining what this world would look like from the perspective of a Black man — especially one recently freed from slavery, like the real Nat Love. Over the film’s 137-minute runtime, we mostly see Black characters, so it’s striking when white faces do pop up — usually, they’re well-off and in a privileged social position. Westerns tend to portray their characters as rugged individuals living close to the land, but The Harder They Fall depicts the actual economic disparity at the time. Tellingly, Black cowboys rob from white institutions, and one of the film’s funniest moments concerns Nat holding up a bank in what’s known as a white town — in fact, all the buildings in the community are literally white.
Simply the image of Black men and women riding horses against sweeping landscapes is a stunning corrective to what we normally encounter in Westerns. But The Harder They Fall wants to do more than critique genre clichés. Samuel has crafted a pitiless action flick in which the violence can be graphic and the explosions gaudy. The sober cultural commentary is overshadowed by the old-fashioned, shoot-’em-up thrills, particularly in the movie’s final section. You can argue that that’s actually Samuel’s most radical gambit: The Harder They Fall is very much the kind of slick, adrenalized Western that Hollywood pumps out from time to time, except this time people of color are calling the shots both in front of and behind the camera.
Which would be exciting if the characters were more engaging. Whether it’s the morally slippery Nat or the quietly unnerving Rufus, The Harder They Fall has cardboard cutouts of the sort of good and bad guys we see in movies like this. (Elba, who’s been so good at playing villains in his career, can do this kind of thing in his sleep.) Even Stanfield, radiating a nearly sociopathic level of calm as the sharpshooting Bill, can’t fully escape the fact that we’ve seen endless variations of this slightly-crazy killer.
But the real problem is the movie’s insistence on having every character engage in the same dull dick-measuring contest. We’re used to the John Wayne brand of no-bullshit machismo that’s dominated Westerns for generations, and The Harder They Fall doubles down on that old-school swagger. Unfortunately, it’s never especially interesting swagger, with most of the participants (male or female) speaking in the same scorched-earth style that’s rarely as cool as they (or Samuel) think. Certain characters are given terse soliloquies where they reveal their tortured backstories, but there’s always a showy, superficial flourish to them, undercutting any dramatic fireworks that are meant to be unleashed. (Also, the film extremely overestimates how compelling its exploration of fate is — not that this keeps Samuel from elevating it to near operatic levels of bombast.) As macho as old Westerns used to be, they were also proudly unflashy — they never wanted to make a fuss. The Harder They Fall is all fuss, ramping up the tough-guy act to such a distracting level that it’s hard to slip into the genre’s comforting familiarity.
That’s a shame considering that Samuel has a pretty fine ensemble here, including Danielle Deadwyler, who plays Cuffee, a woman who disguises herself as a man to navigate through this sexist society. (The character was based on a real woman, Cathay Williams, who enlisted in the Union army under the name William Cathay.) It’s a pointed acknowledgment of the gender inequality rampant in the Old West, and one wishes Samuel had made more of it. Then there’s the cheering sight of Delroy Lindo as a lawman who is the great exception to a lot of the performative cool happening elsewhere in this movie. Watching him walk down the street wasting Rufus’ posse one gunshot at a time is pure pleasure, but also an indication of what’s otherwise so forced and self-conscious about The Harder They Fall.
Overall, The Harder They Fall feels energized by its filmmaker and cast’s excitement about getting to play in a genre that’s often excluded them, with the exception of a Posse or Django Unchained. But too frequently, that relish gets bogged down by a subpar script that encourages the actors to portray types rather than fully-realized people. All his life, Jeymes Samuel has wanted to make a Western that reflected a Black cowboy culture that’s long been ignored by Hollywood and American society at large. But the swagger too often feels like dress-up — the movie is never quite bold enough to blaze its own trail.