Violence is never the answer. However, sometimes it is.
Violence is also inevitable, which is what we can learn from The Harder They Fall, Netflix’s historically fictitious western that aims to turn several Black urban legends into larger-than-life film icons. The opening text assures us that while the story is fiction, these characters were real people. One such person is Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), a cavalier cowboy with a ten thousand bounty on his head. But Love is on a mission, to hunt down the men responsible for slaughtering his family. At the top of his kill list is one Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). While his name suggests he’s somebody’s drunk uncle, Rufus Buck is not to be [REDACTED] with! He’s a mean crime lord, whose gang of outlaws come together to terrorize the predominantly Black community of Redwood. But Nat Love has his own gang, and the two parties are on a collision course that Nat has been waiting for since childhood. But does Rufus Buck even remember the trauma he’s inflicted on our hero?
Love walks around with a scar on his forehead, in the shape of a cross. It was branded on his face by Buck when Love was just a boy. The film tries to establish a clear bond between religion and vengeance. This juxtaposition is a common theme in Westerns and even the filmography of Martin Scorsese. The idea is that violent, corrupt people are also very religious and innately desire forgiveness for their sins. One of the men Love seeks revenge on is seen visiting a church, despite our knowledge of his involvement in a violent crime. He, however, is met by an adult Nat Love, whose Harry Potter-esque scar almost paints him as a divine hero, despite many violent misdeeds of his own. But can violence be considered divine if it occurs in the context of revenge and “justice”?
In captivity for a litany of crimes, Buck is broken out of imprisonment and emerges from his chamber like the Big Bad in a comic book film. To his rescue are his partners in crime – Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trudy Smith (a show-stealing Regina King). Once released, Buck aims to reclaim his ownership of Redwood from its new mayor, who has a personal history with Buck.
Buck’s gang, while having their own idiosyncrasies (Cherokee Bill has a little bit of arithmomania), do not really have a code. Even their vague religious ties are all for show. Once it’s revealed why Buck decided to brand Nat with a cross, it’s questionable whether religion was a factor in the decision at all. The gang makes half-hearted attempts at honoring respectable outlaw customs, before turning the tables on their adversaries. Whether it’s bringing a gun to a fistfight, or blind-siding, someone, in a duel, these men are cowards masquerading as the embodiment of toughness.
The only one embodying a semblance of honor is Trudy, who utilizes her violence for three purposes: 1) confirming she’s a woman who belongs here 2) protecting her friends and family 3) retaliation against white supremacy. She tells a chilling tale about her youth, in which she took her thirst for violence too far, and as a reward, she was ostracized from her family. I wonder if she would be ostracized if she was a man, doing manly things that men are expected to do.
The film’s real-world themes are balanced with stylized action. Director Jeymes Samuel imbues the film with a sense of hyper-realism. Characters are shot and fly into the air. Several slow-motion scenes display a symphony of violence that would make John Woo blush. The cinematography is mostly fantastic. There’s still a sense, in some scenes, that you’re watching a TV show rather than a movie, which is a common Netflix problem where some shots are flat and over-exposed. This isn’t an issue during the nighttime scenes, and the film’s photography overall gets better as the movie goes along.
The cast is rounded out by a team of heavy hitters, including Delroy Lindo, Damon Wayans Jr., a surprisingly against type turn by Deon Cole, and a wonderfully understated performance by Danielle Deadwyler. RJ Cyler almost seems like he’s in a different movie as the wise-cracking Jim Beckworth; the performance teeters into that Will Smith in Wild Wild West realm of “I’m a 21st-century guy pretending to be in the 19th century.” Much has been written about Zazie Beetz, a light‐skinned actor, playing the famously dark-skinned Stagecoach Mary. Mary is Nat Love’s flame, but the two do not have the best chemistry, and really just reminded me how much I love seeing Beatz with Donald Glover (Atlanta) or Majors with Jurnee Smollett (Lovecraft Country).
But love isn’t what’s driving Nat’s journey in the first place. Rather, it’s a sense of vengeance. But this devotion to revenge is turned on its head when Nat’s story slowly becomes emblematic of one of the most famous Bible passages, but to say which would be giving away too much. It perfectly sets up the question of why this theme, the balance between violence and religious practice, is such a recurring theme in the genre. That is why forgiveness is necessary, as it’s the only salvation for those who have blood on their hands. But at a certain point, the blood must be too much. Redwood is host to an array of characters who can’t be saved – they’re a community of lost souls.