"The Harder They Fall" is a bloody pleasure: a revenge Western packed with memorable characters played by memorable actors, each scene and moment staged for voluptuous beauty and kinetic power. Jeymes Samuel, who cowrote, directed, and scored the movie, has not just studied the works of the directors he emulates, but understands what they were doing with image and sound, and feels it, surely in the way that he feels the craft involved in music he performs and produces under his stage name The Bullitts. It's a pity that this Netflix film will likely be seen mainly on handheld devices, laptops, and iPads, because (like other late-2021 releases, such as "The French Dispatch" and "Dune") it was plainly conceived with a movie house in mind. Samuel uses a very wide screen to frame shots that employ a lot of negative space and contain layers of information you have to focus on to appreciate, and gifts his actors with precious moments where their characters are allowed to listen to each other, silently glance at each other, and ponder their next move, often while enduring death-stares from enemies armed to the teeth.

Western history buffs should be warned, or at least notified, that while many of the major characters in the story share the same names as actual people who lived and died in the Old West, including Nat Love, Bass Reeves, Stagecoach Mary, Jim Beckwourth, and Cherokee Bill, the events they take part in are mostly made-up nonsense. They bear as much relation to reality as the events of a dreamscape Western like "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "The Quick and the Dead," and "Posse" (to name just three Westerns this one cribs from) or a gangster movie like "Dillinger" and "The Untouchables," the major events of which were so ludicrous that they might as well have been taking place on another planet, or in an alternate dimension. 

But this is a feature of the movie, not a bug. The entire project feels like a bit of a lark or an indulgence, until the point when it wipes the cocky grin off its face, embraces the melodramatic aspects of its central storyline, and becomes an earnest romance, a family tragedy, and a quasi-mythological story about how violence begets more violence, whether it's experienced in a saloon, on dusty streets, or in the privacy of a family home. (Three different characters in "The Harder They Fall" talk about their experiences with domestic abuse.)


Jonathan Majors, who came out of nowhere a few years ago to become one of the most reliable of leading men, stars as Nat Love, first depicted in flashback as a terrified child whose mother and father are murdered by the outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). As a parting gift, Buck draws his dagger and inscribes a crucifix into the boy's forehead. It marks the film's hero as meaningfully as the vertical sabre-scar on the Outlaw Josey Wales' face. As an adult, Nat becomes a feared gunslinger and outlaw, and finds himself embroiled in a combination adventure and revenge mission targeting the man who killed his parents. There are quick-draws, large-scale gunfights, horse stunts, and chases, a train robbery, bank robberies, and a couple of hand-to-hand brawls with fists, feet and makeshift weapons that are as good as any ever staged in a Western (with unabashedly modern fight choreography, though—like something out of a Bond or Bourne film). There are also musical numbers, and big sets painted in so many varied and vibrant hues and with so many modern touches that at times we seem to be touring an art installation on Western themes. A fight to the death between two characters in a barn is preceded by a walk through brightly dyed fabrics hanging on clotheslines; they look like those large-scale "wrapping" projects that Christo does on landscapes.