Straddling the line between homage and revisionism, “The Harder They Fall” features forgotten figures to tell an old tale inside a burnished tableau. The opening title cards declare that while the story is fictional, “These. People. Existed.” — these people being an assemblage of actual African-Americans in the Old West who, while contemporaries of the well-known legends of yesteryear, have been lost to the dustbin of history. Writer-director Jeymes Samuel (aka British singer-songwriter “The Bullitts”) lends his contemporary musical ear and cinematic eye to this postmodern spin on the spaghetti Western.
In real life, the cast of characters, many ex-slaves, were outlaws, lawmen, rodeo performers, and even mail carriers. Samuels re-purposes their legacies into antiheroes in an old-fashioned revenge tale. Years ago, bad guy Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) gunned down the parents of young Nat Love before carving a cross into Love’s forehead. The embittered Love (Jonathan Majors) grows up to become an outlaw himself, along with a gang that includes long-suffering girlfriend Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) and gunmen Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler).
Love’s lifelong thirst for vengeance is renewed when Buck is sprung from prison by his own gang, chiefly the brutal Trudy Smith (Regina King) and contemplative quick-draw artist Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield). When Buck and company reclaim the African-American-inhabited town of Redwood, Love makes his way there with the added aid of marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) and bar bouncer Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), patterned after the real-life Cathay Williams, a black woman posing as a man credited as the first female to enlist in the US Army.
Samuels applies a glossy varnish to the well-worn retribution yarn, incorporating hip-hop elements into the score to compliment some slick, eye-popping camera work — Mihai Mălaimare’s cinematography is truly awards-worthy. Each scene holds the potential for a sensory feast — as just one passing but memorable example, an overhead shot captures two characters in conversation on a sunbathed dirt street, with the casted horizontal outline of their silhouettes projecting their gestures. Yeah, the grit and grime is often offset by some incongruous set design — when Love and Cuffee rob a bank in a white town, all the buildings are literally painted all white, a silly but striking spectacle. Still, there is some ingenious visual flair at work, all of it the evolutionary offspring of Sergio Leone.
A film cast is truly heavyweight when Idris Elba is a relatively minor player. Majors’ star continues its steady rise, backed by memorable turns from King, Stanfield, Deadwyler, and Lindo. Samuels is more dedicated to historical stimulation than historical fidelity — you’ll glean more facts from Wikipedia than the film itself. But Westerns have long been a product of atmospherics, and in that vein “The Harder They Fall” is a transgressive take on a proven formula.
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