Friday, November 5, 2021

Movie Review: The Harder They Fall

The Harder They Fall is an intellectual film that explores and contextualizes the history of its genre, but it's also just fucking fun as all hell to watch. It's like someone made one of the year's best popcorn flicks and fused it at a molecular level with a graduate-level lecture on film history, somehow without sacrificing one iota of either. And that... it's just... I'm kind of speechless.

Let's start with the brainy stuff. The movie is, obviously, a western. Not a parody of westerns: it's wholly operating within the rules of that genre. I think this is key to understanding The Harder They Fall: it's not breaking or bending those rules but rather exploiting loopholes.

Westerns have always prioritized myth over reality, they've never worried about anachronisms, and they've always been maybe a quarter step away from being musicals. These elements are intrinsic to the genre. The Harder They Fall just tweaks some of the conventions to generate something a little more modern.

I don't mean "modern" in a sense of differentiating this from history - again, westerns aren't set in the actual historical west anymore than Disney fairytales are set in the historical middle ages. When I say this movie modernizes the western, I mean it's what the western would (or at least should) have evolved into if the genre had never gone out of fashion. If they'd remained as popular for the past forty years as they'd been in the previous forty and had been able to continue innovating, I think this is what they'd have grown into as the genre matured. 

All of which is interesting but almost besides the point, because - as I said at the start - this thing is just delightful. It's got the dialogue of a Marvel film (the really good ones, I mean), top-notch action, as much style as anything I've seen this year, a hell of a cast, and a great soundtrack tying it all together. The movie is hilarious and engaging. Every character in it is likeable, including the antagonists. It's just a wonderful experience, start to finish.

All of this does come with a bit of a price, however. Not a steep price, but still one I feel I should mention. The experience works as a whole, but I'm not sure it actually works better than the sum of its parts. To be clear, this isn't a complaint. The movie delivers everything it promises and then some. And, at the risk of contradicting myself, it does amount to something larger - that's what the first part of this review was about.

The point of the movie is that history is more than the actions of a handful of straight, white men, and if westerns are mythologized history, said mythology must extend beyond that limited scope. There's nothing intrinsic to the western genre that should limit it to white people - in fact, expanding both the scope of the characters the genre is exploring and the scope of music and culture it incorporates has the potential to revitalize that genre. The movie effectively makes that argument simply by existing and being that good.

It's a hell of an intellectual accomplishment coupled with a hell of an entertaining piece of art, but all that doesn't leave much room for an emotional core. That's not to say the movie lacks emotion altogether; the emotional beats are solid. But they're solid in the way really good blockbusters are solid: this movie is a bit formulaic. It kind of has to be - it's operating within the blueprint of the genre to demonstrate how different the end product feels when the style is updated and the characters aren't photocopies of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. If they'd changed up the formula too much, they'd risk this being less of a western, which would diminish the point.

That does mean sacrificing a bit of emotional resonance, but the trade-off is more than worth it. This thing is easily one of the most intriguing and enjoyable genre films of the year. If you're paying for a Netflix subscription, you owe it to yourself to watch this.