The Harder They Fall has been praised as an “unconventional” Western by some critics, but what’s brilliant about this film — and it is a terrific film — is something close to the opposite of that: It is an utterly conventional Western, almost to the point of cliché.
Check off the list: the happy family sitting at the dinner table when menace suddenly appears at their door (think Lee Van Cleef in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), the conflicted outlaw born of trauma (The Outlaw Josey Wales), the kid who thinks he’s the fastest gun in the West only to find out the hard way he isn’t (a little bit of the Schofield Kid), the beautiful woman in the hospitality trade who turns out to be tough as nails (Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious or Morena Baccarin in Serenity), the frontier town where local interests are threatened by annexation and development (Warlock), the lawman whose sense of justice takes him outside the law (take your pick), etc.
Do the surviving heroes ride off into the sunset after the obligatory Boot Hill scene involving makeshift crosses atop the graves of their fallen comrades? Of course they do.
(The characters share names and bits of biography with historical figures from the West, but the story is fiction.)
The quirky Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) puts in as good a performance as any I can think of in a modern Western. And that performance is a departure from Western convention: His Nat Love is a mess of conflicting motives and competing affects (now the cool fatalist, now overwhelmed) that together offer the portrait of a whole and complete person in contrast to the traditional, stereotypically breviloquent Western hero.
Elsewhere, the casting also honors a more recent convention — i.e., that the best American stories are enacted by casts dominated by British actors, in this case Idris Elba as the principal bad guy and Delroy Lindo as the marshal. The director is British, too: Jeymes Samuel, who performs music under the stage name The Bullitts, which is a little snappier than his musician brother’s stage name, Seal.
Regina King, who is having one of those great can’t-miss runs (from starring in Watchmen to directing One Night in Miami) is the No. 2 villain. She seems to be enjoying herself — and why wouldn’t she? Ten years ago, she was playing second-tier roles in middling films, and just a few years ago she was still playing a minor recurring role on The Big Bang Theory — and now, she is a 50-year-old woman who really only recently has begun a new career as an action star. She is set up to be the principal bad guy in the sequel.
Jeymes Samuel and Romanian cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. seem to have discovered a cure for Tarantino-ism. There is extravagant violence, odd camera angles, some knowingly stagey dialogue, and self-conscious nods to Western conventions, etc., but these are never enough to pull viewers out of the story. Quentin Tarantino makes movies about movies, but this is a movie about outlaws. This is Samuel’s first feature film, and maybe it was the caution of the first-time director that has served him well — there is a lot of style and flair, but no so much that he gets in his own way.
The Harder They Fall is currently on Netflix.