One of my favorite things about watching movies is loving one that you weren’t expecting to love. It’s happened to me a few times this year — Dune, tick, tick… BOOM!, Pig, and Annette are all good examples. But most recently, The Harder They Fall became one of the best movies I’ve seen all year, and I’ve barely heard anyone talk about it.
So this is a western, which is the main reason I’d put off queuing it up on Netflix for a few weeks. The cast excited me (LaKeith Stanfield, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, and Regina King by themselves would have been enough to get me to watch this), but westerns aren’t typically my favorite genre. Except, The Harder They Fall isn’t a typical western. Besides the fact that the entirety of the main cast are Black, this has more style than most of the top-10 2021 box office earners put together. And when I say style, I’m including incredible cinematography that feels like a mix of Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee, and an anachronistic soundtrack that puts A Knight’s Tale to shame. Add to this a clever play on your typical western tropes, and you have one of the most enjoyable, if visceral, movies of the year.
While this provides a ton of fun and entertainment even through its fairly long runtime (139 minutes), it can still be pretty tough to watch here and there. The opening scene sees Nat Love’s (played in the prologue by Chase Dillon, and by Jonathan Majors for the rest of the film) parents killed by Rufus Buck, or the man who we come to know as the Devil Himself (Elba). From there we’re taken a few years into the future where Nat is now an adult, and we’re introduced to the wide cast of characters who are split up between Nat’s gang and Buck’s gang. When Nat learns that Buck was broken out of prison, the story really gets going because now he’s officially in the revenge business.
As I mentioned earlier, this movie is largely carried by its cast and director. This was my first encounter with Jonathan Majors, and I gotta say, I get the hype! He’s got the swagger mixed with the seriousness needed for the role. With a lead performance of lesser quality, we wouldn’t buy the character’s motivation and ultimate choice the way we do. Beetz, meanwhile, is great, showing some range that I haven’t quite seen yet; Elba is his typical cool guy self with the addition of menacing bad guy on top of it; King follows up Watchmen with another not-to-be-messed-with antihero; Stanfield is simply cool — he plays a guy named Cherokee Bill. Come on; and then there’s still Edi Gathegi, Delroy Lindo, Danielle Deadwyler, and RJ Cyler. Everyone being on the exact same page elevates this to new heights.
But what truly cements this as one of my favorites of the year, is that it is so much more than a simple revenge tale. Of course, that’s a big part of it, but there’s also a lot to dive into thematically with the cast being Black. With this being 19th century America, there is obviously good food for thought along those lines. There’s exploration of absentee fathers, thoughts of forgiveness, the cost of violence, and paying for past transgressions. It all comes together with the final showdown, which I won’t spoil, but on top of being a heart-pounding, fist-clenching, fast paced set piece, it’s also a deeply moving portrait of human hurt.
This film hit me much harder than I ever expected for a slick western, but I’m glad it did. I’m all for a movie being confident in its style. With its magnetic mix of wit, humor, action, and heart, The Harder They Fall is not a movie you want to miss.