The Harder They Fall (2021)

Well they tell me of a pie up in the sky

Perhaps what’s most surprising about The Harder They Fall is the fact that it is not subversive at all. It is a Black cowboy movie — made by a Black director and screenwriter, starring an entirely Black ensemble — in which race plays almost no role (minus one or two scenes). I suppose, to some extent, this circles back around to subversive: by refusing to make the characters’ skin color the film’s subject, it rejects stereotypes and empowers minority storytellers to escape the necessity of race stories.

However you look at it, The Harder They Fall ultimately offers more familiarity than novelty. The film hews very closely to western tropes and iconography, much like the short that director Jeymes Samuel made eight years earlier with They Die By Dawn, which serves as a proof-of-concept for The Harder They Fall. Like the short, the film’s innovation comes not from any explicit formal or narrative components, but an undefinable spirit: This has the chutzpah of Blaxploitation film, rendered with the blend of earnestness and swagger seen in early ‘90s gangster flick like Menace II Society.

In general, The Harder They Fall’s strengths and weaknesses very closely match that of Samuel’s short: The spine-crushing coolness of the cast is the biggest appeal: Idris Elba, Regina King, Zazie Beetz, Danielle Deadwyler, etc. Jonathan Majors is absolutely fantastic in the lead. LaKeith Stanfield and RJ Cyler, the latter of whom is very funny throughout, both have a little bit of “iPhone face” — i.e. they look and carry themselves in such a modern way that it’s tough to imagine they’re really in the lawless wild west. That’s not helped by the slickness of the production — the clean fabrics and shiny furniture — which lacks the grit you associate with westerns.

Nonetheless, I still think the production is very good. The costumes are colorful and fun, the sets excellent. Samuel includes a bunch of old west touchstones for locations — a brothel, a bank for robbing, a train, a saloon, etc. And they are all well-used in fun scenes.

Normally calling a movie “cool” implies some visual stylization, but Samuel is pretty restrained while still never approaching naturalism: It’s almost old-fashioned in how down-the-middle a piece of direction it is. This isn’t inherently a complaint, but I do think that Samuel’s directing instincts are not outstanding, which shows especially in the film’s pace. At nearly 140 minutes, this is a long movie, and it never is making the most of that runtime. (It makes sense to me that a musician by background would have more a knack for flavor and flair than for storytelling fundamentals.)

A title card at the beginning of the film boasts that these characters are based on historical figures, but it’s ultimately a bit of a gimmick: The narrative itself is completely invented, which begs the question of how you can claim this is based off of history in the first place. I suppose the actors are probably modeled after photographs, and some biographical and personality details perhaps cribbed from history books.

You can tell that Samuel is a big fan of westerns, and that’s really what allows The Harder They Fall to hold together into a compelling final product: This is a loving execution of a revenge western, detailed and rich. For whatever flaws it has, mostly in pace and dramaturgy, it’s an exciting execution of a fading genre.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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One reply on “The Harder They Fall (2021)”

I rather liked this one, though the twist in the tale struck me as a just a touch superfluous.

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