TL;DR – a stylistic western revenge flick with a killer soundtrack that tells more of the story than the dialogue and visuals.
Review (warning: spoilers)
A husband, his wife and their son sit down at the table for supper. The husband says grace, thanking the Lord for their meal, but they are interrupted by a knock at the door. When the husband sees who it is, he whispers, ‘No.’
The husband backs away, looks longingly at the rifle perched on the wall out of reach. The stranger enters, spits on the floor and sits down at the table taking out two gold plated revolvers and puts them on the table. The husband sits down and asks the stranger to leave his husband and son out of this. He expresses that the quarrel is with him not with his family. The stranger calmly raises his two guns and points one each at the wife and son. The husband pleads to leave them alone. The stranger points both guns at the wife and fires killing her instantly. He then turns and shoots the husband. The son screams seeing his parents murdered before him. The stranger takes a razor out of his pocket and proceeds to cut the boy’s forehead while he continues to beg and scream. Thus is the opening of The Harder They Fall, a film by Jeymus Samuel in his directional debut.
Samuel is a singer-songwriter and music producer and clearly uses this strength in adding story-telling and atmosphere through the choice of songs (most of them original) designed for this film. A mix of reggae and religious sounds that is used extensively and, at times, compensates for lack of story.
After the opening violence, we fast forward and are introduced to Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), outlaw and leader of the ‘Nat Love Gang’ who rob from other outlaw gangs who rob from banks. Make sense? Basically, a robber who robs from robbers. But that is not his primary drive. His primary drive is hunting down the Buck Gang led by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) who was responsible for killing Nat’s parents (yes, Nat is the boy we see screaming in the opening scene and has a cross cut into his forehead by Rufus’s razor blade).
Nat’s gang comprises of sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and quick draw Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) along with Mary Fields (Zazie Beets), Nat’s previous love who left him because she couldn’t bare not knowing if Nat would come back alive from each of his revenge kills.
The last one alive on Nat’s mission of revenge is, of course, Rufus Buck himself and the story that unfolds is largely linear with the mandatory twist in the final scenes. When a large number of bodies are scattered on the ground and Nat faces off against Rufus, it is then we finally get to see Rufus’s motive for killing Nat’s parents. In short, Nat’s father had a previous life as a violent outlaw who was married and had a son. That son was Rufus. Seems Nat’s father had the dark past of beating his first wife and son leading to one day killing Rufus’s mother who was trying to defend him. The father leaves and starts a new life as an honest man, remarries to another woman and has Nat.
So the twist is a revenge within a revenge or rather a cycle of revenge. Rufus didn’t kill his half brother, Nat, because he knew that Nat would want revenge and become an outlaw himself. To Rufus, it was the ultimate revenge on his father who killed his mother and left him to rot.
Another interesting mechanic used by Director Samuel is that while the story is entirely fictional, the characters are based on real people. And practically all these historical figures are of African American or Indian descent. But this is not a film about race. There’s only one scene where race is played out when Nat and his gang robs a bank in a town whose population is all white, but there is no particular narrative or message being said.
More subtly, Rufus has created a town called Redwood, which has a black population and there is inference that Rufus seeks to create a mecca or sanctuary for black people. However, again, this is just a by-product that is not examined in any significant detail. The story is simply about revenge and how revenge spawns more revenge (yes, there is a final shot where Nat having achieved his revenge rides off with his love, Mary, but we see the arm of someone holding a hat looking down on them from a cliff and if you’ve been following you will know that it belongs to a character named Trudy (Regina King) who was Rufus’s right-hand woman…) So, sequel perhaps?
Overall, I couldn’t help feel that the film was more style over substance. The reliance on the soundtrack and the solid cast unable to hide its flaws in the story. For example, Mary talks Nat into letting her “scout” Redwood, which doesn’t make much sense especially when she ends up simply trotting into town on her horse and trying to make a deal with Rufus (who does the logical thing of capturing her and using her as bait to flush out Nat). Bizarre move on both Nat and Mary’s part. At some points, I also felt the film was more about showcasing songs that fit into the narrative rather than the story standing on its own two feet with support from the soundtrack. By the end, there is not much to savour as all the shooting and killing feels templated and Rufus’s revelation (which admittedly is delivered with as much gravitas as Idris Elba can muster) is anti-climatic.
A case of buy the soundtrack but not the movie.
6 out of 10