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The Harder They Fall LFF Film Review

★★★★

 


Warning: Spoilers


The Harder They Fall opened this year’s London Film Festival; it's the feature debut of musician-turned-director Jeymes Samuel and like all good debuts it’s borderline over-confident in its stylistic force. At no moment does the film hesitate or compromise its world. Samuel’s vision is executed with lavish precision, operatic shoot-outs, theatrical set pieces. Ahead of the film’s evening premier, Samuel expresses that his ‘appetite was always huge’ and The Harder They Fall is an exciting testament to the filmmaker’s ambition.


Set in the Old West, the film charters the journey of Nat Love, loosely based on a real man with the same name, an African-American cowboy during the American Civil War. Love is played by Jonathan Majors who balances charm with intensity; his face is always looking a little further than what’s in front of him. As a child, Love witnesses his parents’ murder by malevolent outlaw Rufus Buck (also a real outlaw and member of the multi-racial Rufus Buck Gang). Buck is played by Idris Elba who manages to locate the man within the monster; Elba’s Buck is a titanic force, a satanic presence, but Elba’s performance reminds us how there is thought beneath the violence (both humanising and terrifying). After killing the ten year old boy's parents, Buck carves a cross in the child’s forehead, so that he’ll identify the boy when he grows up and craves revenge. Twenty or so years later, the wounded child is now a man seeking vengeance with the help of his fellow outlaws.


Regina King and Zazie Beetz also deliver strong performances; King’s character, Trudy Smith, is something of a scene stealer, her coldness made understandable and charismatic. And her memorable bowler hat becomes an iconic calling card. The film’s use of costuming is also worth noting; though it mostly adheres to period outfits, there are exceptions such as Love’s tan leather jacket, which looks like it was pried from a 70s Blacksploitation picture. There’s also Rufus Buck’s suit which looks distinctly 21st century. After all Buck believes in progress, his town will be a town for the marginalised to congregate. And yet, families will die if that’s what it takes. Costume does more than indicate time and place, it highlights the contradictions dormant in the characters, the fact that they are drawn up from a rich number of sources.


Despite being a Netflix release, The Harder They Fall feels like it was made for the cinema - its widescreen vistas, horses and sunrises, present the classic iconography of the Western, delivered by cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr, who was also responsible for the memorable desert shots in PTA’s The Master. It makes sense that the film was directed by a musician, since Samuel seems especially attentive to the rhythm of the film. Not just the pacing and perfection of the soundtrack, but also the editing of footage, how it builds best for dramatic effect. When remembering such classic Westerns like Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly or Fistful of Dollars, so much of the genre relies on music. Morricone’s score helped define Leone’s films, combined with an almost operatic use of close-ups. Samuel doesn’t shy away from throwing in some of these classic ingredients - rapid-fire close-ups and wide-shot showdowns.


But while the film broadens the potential scope of the Western, it sometimes feels burdened by the genre. It tries to expand into a love story or revenge story, but these narrative threads can be stifled by the heavy reliance of genre to carry out the movie. After all, it’s a film with very little silence, every gap for reflection being immediately filled with yet another gunshot. Eventually, the violence grows tiresome. Nonetheless, Samuel’s film sets the bar incredibly high for this year’s London Film Festival, with scenes and set designs that are unforeseen. The Harder They Fall is an invaluable contribution to its genre and to the progress of filmmaking, telling the stories of the cowboys that White history chose to forget. Ahead of the premier, Regina King reaffirms how ‘It’s impossible to tell the story without all the storytellers’.

 

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