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It is the first day of LFF and I take a look at festival opener The Harder They Fall, Jeymes Samuel’s ultra-slick, ultra-violent revisionist Western.
“What’s cooler than being cool?” asks Andrè 3000 somewhere in the middle of Outkast’s mega-hit “Hey Ya!” and for anyone who knows the song, the immediate response to that question is of course “Ice cold!”. In Jeymes Samuel’s cooler than cool hip-hop Western The Harder The Fall, revenge is most definitely served ice cold by a literal murderers’ row of contemporary acting talent reworking tried and true genre tropes into an electrifying and violent revision of African-American history on the frontier.
The film finds two outlaw gangs pitted against each other, one circling the other as the tension grows toward an inevitably violent showdown of blood and bullets. On one side there is the Nat Love Gang, led by the charismatic Robin Hood-esque Nat (Jonathan Majors) and his on-again/off-again paramour, Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz). On the other side, there is cold-blooded killer Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) and his gang of miscreants, including the just as devious Treacherous Trudy (Regina King). Nat is after Rufus for a spot of revenge for sins committed upon him in his past, teaming up with US Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) to take down Rufus and his cronies once and for all.
A title card that opens the film reads “While this is a work of fiction. These. People. Existed.” And true enough, figures like Nat Love, Rufus Buck and Bass Reeves are torn straight from the history books and thrown together into a fictional scenario to bring to light the contribution of African Americans in the Old West beyond the ugly stereotypes perpetrated through history, cinematic or otherwise. If the goal of the film is for these characters and their experiences to finally be seen by the world, then director Samuel succeeds admirably. Not only is this a film to be seen, you cannot take your eyes off it.
Samuel’s debut feature film is dripping in style. As soon as the comic-book style opening credits roll and the stonking backbeat of the first hip-hop track kicks in it becomes clear this is a Western like no other. Every frame is filled with blazingly colourful eye-candy, from the orange deserts meeting the ice-blue sky on a distant horizon, to the almost technicolour aesthetic of Redwood, the location of the climactic shootout. The costumes too are designed for maximum impact, from Trudy’s blood-red bandana to Buck’s dual gold-plated revolvers. If pressed to place this film amongst its influences, other than the obvious century-worth of Westerns it is drawing from, one could suggest it falls somewhere near Tarantino’s Django Unchained and RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists for its sheer audacity and clarity of vision.
Then there is the acting. Samuel carefully pairs up his roster of acting heavy-weights with an impressive compliment of fresh-faced up-and-comers. Each character is a clearly drawn Western archetype in a story drenched in just as much dramatic irony as it is in blood, but the acting talent on display draws the viewer in and makes them feel like the real people they are based on. Elba brings villainous intensity like only he can, filling up every room he walks into and Jonathan Majors is going from strength-to-strength and has charisma to burn. Lindo delivers his trademark gravitas in a supporting role, while Zazie Beetz is the woman who is too-cool-for-school but has a secret bleeding heart. Regina King is effortlessly brilliant as the cutthroat Trudy who is quick with a word but quicker with a knife. But the standout, MVP performance must be from Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, the androgynous pugilist looking to carve out her own place in the world.
Acting, costume and production design, cinematography and music are all top rate and combine to make for an utterly unique experience. The film also highlights a hitherto underrepresented perspective of the Old West, which makes the classic tropes feel fresh again. If there is one complaint it is that the film takes a little too long to manoeuvre its characters into position for the climax. However, one narrative detour which finds Nat and Cuffee pressganged into robbing a bank is so funny that to leave it out, and deprive the audience of this sequence, would be, well, ice cold. Loud, bright and violent with an all-star cast and a driving hip-hop and reggae soundtrack, The Harder They Fall is a cooler than cool revisionist Western that shows off the vast talents of its first-time feature director.
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