For a long time I thought I hated Westerns, until I learned that I’d just been watching the wrong ones. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly taught me that yes, there actually were Westerns for me – specifically, the subgenre of revisionist Westerns.
As soon as I saw the promo for the new Western The Harder They Fall on Netflix, I knew I had to watch it. Since I didn’t end up getting to it in 2021, I decided to select it for my third entertainment challenge of 2022.
The Harder They Fall stars Jonathan Majors as Nat Love, an outlaw on a quest for vengeance against Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), the man who murdered Nat’s family when Nat was a child and forced him to watch. Buck’s gang has broken their boss out of prison and even managed to get him pardoned, which means that if Buck is going to be brought to justice, it will need to happen outside the law.
Nat brings together the members of his own gang; former flame and business owner Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz); and even U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) for an epic showdown on the streets of Redwood City. (Even cooler? These characters are inspired by real-life people from history.)
The Harder They Fall fits very well into the revisionist Western subgenre, as it both celebrates and deconstructs classic Western tropes, with a storytelling style that’s equal parts Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino. Although there’s no flawless hero at the heart of this story, as it’s a battle between two outlaws, Nat is definitely the character we’re rooting for in the conflict. He’s no saint, yet he’s certainly a better man than Rufus Buck, who’s a cold-hearted, ruthless outlaw without a soul (or so it seems).
The Western historically was a very white genre, and older Westerns didn’t always have a lot of nuance when it came to social issues (often ignoring them altogether). So it’s great to see the cast for this Western, which also includes Regina King and Lakeith Stanfield. It does exactly what a great revisionist Western should: evoke a past time and place while also telling a story through a modern lens.
I think it’s great that people are still making Westerns, a genre I once (mistakenly) wrote off as being too outdated and tired to hold much interest for today’s audiences. We’re far enough away from the “Old West” now that it almost seems like a fantasy setting rather than a historical one; cowboys and outlaws have become mythic figures like knights and dragons, and if a storyteller knows what they’re doing, there’s still plenty of life left in those dusty old streets of the Wild West.
My one complaint about The Harder They Fall is that it seemed to run a little long. Clocking in at two and a half hours, I think the film would have packed more of a punch if it had been cut down to just two hours. It has plenty of style and swagger, but also a little bloat.
If you love Westerns, I highly recommend adding The Harder They Fall to your Netflix watch list (or if you’re new to the genre, this is a great place to start). If you’ve already seen The Harder They Fall and want to discuss it in more depth, keep reading for more spoiler-filled thoughts.
One of the most fascinating parts of The Harder They Fall is the twist at the end, which reveals that Rufus Buck is actually Nat Love’s half-brother (they share the same father). Rufus wanted to get revenge on his abusive father, who used to be an outlaw himself and killed Rufus’ mother in a fit of rage. Rufus’ father later reformed himself, finding a new wife and starting a new family, but Rufus still wanted revenge. So by murdering his father in front of Nat, Rufus sets Nat on a path to becoming a violent outlaw, which is exactly what their father didn’t want.
You can see the horror dawning in Nat’s eyes as he realizes what a brutal long-game his older brother has played, ruining Nat’s life just to make a point. Nat’s own quest for revenge helped his brother accomplish his. It’s a clever bit of storytelling that gives the film an added layer of nuance.
The other character that really stood out to me is Trudy Smith (Regina King), whose relationship with Rufus Buck could probably be classified as “it’s complicated.” She’s as tough and calculating as Buck is, but she comes across as a more sympathetic character, because you know how difficult life would have been for a woman – particularly a Black woman – in the Wild West. She’s had to fight for every bit of respect and fear that she commands. In fact, she’d probably make a better gang leader than Buck himself.
It would have been cool to see this movie on the big screen (I think I would have enjoyed it even more in that format), but I’m thankful that non-franchise movies like this one have found a home on streaming services. I want to see more bold Westerns that seek to revive the genre and also do something new with it.
And if Netflix decides to greenlight a sequel or prequel with a new Nat Love gang adventure? I’m on board.