The Harder They Fall (2021) Netflix Review: A Western Tale With Its Flair Of Entertainment
A family of three is sitting around a table on a mundane afternoon. They are about to have their meal before which they begin with their casual prayer. The same, casual words that families say before starting a meal, in the praise of the lord. There is not even the slightest sign of stress on their faces. They continue with their uneventful conversation that moves at an unhurried pace. While that slowness gives away the setting they’re in – a place where things move in such a relaxed manner, their attire gives away the period their story is based in. After taking its due time, this mundane interaction gets interrupted by a sudden turn-of-events which puts their lives at stake in no time. The Harder They Fall is filled with similar gripping moments.
And there is something characteristically ‘western’ about this scene – its length, pace, the sudden tonal shift. No matter where the scene is placed in the film, the reader can get an idea of the genre by its world-building. A signature of westerns is the long, suspenseful scenes and their sparse amount within the film as compared to other genres. From the moment someone plans to pull the trigger to the act of doing it, there is a load of time chewed on to make us aware of the individual stylistic choices by the creators. ‘The Harder They Fall’ understands this sense of pace considerably well. It implements its specific flair within such genre guidelines which can surely keep one hooked to the screen.
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Like any other western narrative, two sides of a quarrel are shown yet again to take us through a journey of good vs evil. In such lands of absolute lawlessness, winning the bounty seems to be the biggest ambition to the common folks. A wealth that could feed their future generations or at least give them a name in the province as the unbeatable – as the men worthy of high stature. That has always been the goal that the protagonists from westerns gravitated towards. However, what grabs any person to this Netflix film is its departure from the same male-dominated, white American character-centric narrative to go through the uncharted territories of female and African-American characters as its leads. The primary intrigue for many viewers including me about this Netflix film was how the director Jeymes Samuel manages to subvert these genre expectations.
And needless to say, the singer-songwriter turned director manages this challenge exceedingly well. Westerns do not depend on the inner journeys of their characters but their larger-than-life and often charismatic personalities. The writers of this film understand that to find the right balance of its situations and dialogues to make the characters memorable, appealing, and dazzling with charm. The dialect is redefined and so are the musical choices by the film’s creators- which makes the film refreshingly unique with its approach. From the wide landscapes of the desert to the signature shots of the genre (the eye shots, pulling out a gun), the film pins down its visual grammar with a panache. There are numerous self-referential comic elements in this film related to the old westerns nudging back at the genre conventions.
The beaten-to-death formula of plain good vs bad dynamic is broken by giving a narrative a depth – in which we empathize with both the parties due to their sociological reasonings. Something which also reminds me of the extravagant Marvel film Black Panther – where we are introduced to the sides of T’Challa and Killmonger both which leaves it in the grey tones. The Harder They Fall follows a similar trajectory where, as one of the characters says, he isn’t sure whether he killed the devil or someone else. While following a narrative of vengeance, the film navigates the ‘devil’ in society and the culprit to the situations that these characters fall into.
Even if it is just a scene of bank robbery by tricking the receptionist, the skin of the color of the people on either side, their reactions and responses – make up for a subtle yet poignant & effective commentary on racial inequality. And while both the conflicting parties from the central narrative are led by black characters, the reasons for them to be in those situations are somewhere driven by the same pathos of injustice. This gives an edge to the film over the decades of tradition that this genre holds – by making its themes more relevant by its characters.
Yet despite its strong characters, the film falls just a little short to give the sucker punch towards the end. With the writing and editing choices in its third act, it resorts to the choices that will leave a mark in our memory as nothing more than a mindless killing spree. As a result, despite its star cast and the abundance of creative talent, that mark is sadly missed by a slight margin.