When it comes to showing a film at a festival, there are few honours more impressive than being the opening night selection for the entire festival. The honour at this year’s London Film Festival goes to Jeymes Samuel’s feature film debut, The Harder They Fall which chronicles a fictional story about real black cowboys in the Old West. In a genre that has been majorly dominated by white men, Samuel flips the script entirely with an all-black cast and delivers a film that is stylish and captivating. Boasting an incredible cast that includes Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, and Regina King among many more, The Harder They Fall shows that there is no slowing down the modern Western trend while also marking Samuel’s exceptional debut and talent as a visionary. The film follows cowboy Nat Love (Majors) and his gang as they embark on a mission of revenge against the cruel Rufus Buck (Elba) who killed the former’s parents when he was younger, leaving Love with a scar of a cross on his forehead. What entails is a game of power between the two gangs in a bid to maintain control.
The film is directed by Samuel who cowrote the script with Boaz Yakin and the result is a film that follows a classic Western plot but this is in no means an insult. The plot’s simplicity allows more time for the characters to shine and gives them ample material to play with and become well-developed. Both gangs are filled with memorable characters which can seem overwhelming at times as you don’t know where to look during fight scenes but the chaos that ensues between the gangs and the individual tensions that arise between the members are an absolute thrill to watch. Samuel can only be described as a visionary when it comes to his method of storytelling. The way he combines the tight writing with music and beautiful direction results is on par with some filmmakers who have been working for decade. He clearly is someone who loves film and has a passion for the subject and the characters.
Leading the Nat Love Gang is Majors who plays Love and his partner, Mary (Zazie Beetz). The great thing about this film is that the line between good and bad becomes blurred so even though they lead a life of crime by stealing from outlaws, they have good intentions to serve the community and don’t mistreat anyone who is innocent. Majors’ performance is absolutely magnetic and he leads the film with ease. Love’s quest for revenge is perfectly set up as we see the tragic story play out from his childhood to help us understand his plight better. Love is an incredibly charismatic character who knows how to command a situation and Majors is perfect casting. Playing his love interest, Mary, is Zazie Beetz and the two share a brilliant chemistry together as the dynamic between the shifts and changes. What is great about the female characters in this film is that they don’t rely on a man as they have agency and strength and Beetz has become well-known for her feminist roles which makes her ideal for a character like Mary.
On the other side of the coin is the Rufus Buck Gang led by Buck (Elba) and Trudy (King). Their dynamic is similar to Nat and Mary’s as they are loyal to each other while also enabling each other’s independence. Elba’s role is one of the best in his career as he brings a darkness to the role of Buck that is very unexpected. Buck’s character is one that could be played over the top but Elba’s calm demeanour results in a performance that commands the audience’s attention every time he is on screen. Quiet and calculating, Buck is careful with his words and clearly intelligent and always thinking ahead. It’s also clear that Elba is having a lot of fun with the character and it wouldn’t be surprising if he were to receive some awards attention in the supporting categories come awards season. Playing Buck’s partner in crime, Trudy, is Oscar winner Regina King whose performance is terrifying and probably the most violent out of everyone in the film. Unapologetically tough, King’s ability to tell a story through expression works incredibly well as Trudy. The scene in which we are first introduced to Trudy as she and the rest of the Rufus Buck Gang break Buck out of his cell on a train is among the best in the film. Simply watching Trudy force the train to the stop by fearlessly stopping her horse over the track is both terrifying and leaves you on the end of your seat.
There are so many fantastic support performances that it feels unfair to only discuss a couple but the highlights from the supporting cast have to be Lakeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill and Delroy Lindo as Bass Reeves. Oscar nominee Stanfield is on form as the unpredictable Bill, a man who gained a reputation for his fast shooting speed. In true Stanfield fashion, his performance is subtle which works well as it provides a sinister undertone and fearlessness to the character that makes every move he makes unsettling to the viewer. On the other hand, Delroy Lindo can always be relied upon to give a fantastic performance and his turn as Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves is no exception. Reeves acts as the voice of reason and has the strongest moral compass of all the characters, despite his clear affiliation with a wanted man; however, Lindo portrays Reeves as a man with dignity who knows that he is doing the right thing. In a film that is littered with stars, it’s just a shame that we don’t see more of Reeves throughout.
It would be impossible to review this film and not discuss the music and score. Samuel’s background is in music and he puts this to use by contributing remixes and the score himself. The result of which is absolutely stunning as he merges classic Western sounds with RnB to create a sound that is completely unique but fits in with the film perfectly. In many ways, the music is just as integral to the plot as the visual is. Mixing a variety of genres such as RnB, rap, and Church music to name a few, the score helps with the pacing of the film and works brilliantly, especially in scenes such as the train scene in which Buck’s gang breaks him out.
Overall, The Harder They Fall is a strong opener for the London Film Festival with one of the strongest casts in a film this year and marking a fantastic debut for Samuel. As we have seen a huge increase in Westerns being made in recent years, Samuel shows that there is plenty of room for his vision and executes it brilliantly. It’s hard to believe that this is his first feature film and hopefully promises to be the start of a great career as a filmmaker and writer.
The Harder They Fall is available to watch on Netflix from November 3rd 2021!