Sweet Hats, Plenty of Cattle

The Harder They Fall

by George Wolf

Who doesn’t love a good Western?

If you’re the one, I’ve got two reasons not to saddle up with The Harder They Fall.

  1. It’s a Western
  2. It’s good

Ruthless Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) is getting out of jail, and that’s mighty interesting news to Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), who has no love for Rufus.

Nat has a serious score to settle, so he re-assembles his old gang, led by sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), and sets out on horseback. Along the way, Nat rekindles a flame with saloon owner Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) and earns the trust of Mary’s silent-but-deadly bodyguard Cuffie (Danielle Deadwyler).

And even though Nat is a wanted man, Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) decides he’d rather be on the team that finally takes Buck down.

But Rufus has some pretty solid support in his corner, too. Treacherous Trudy Smith (Regina King) speaks softly but shows no mercy, while quick draw legend Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) leads a posse of men helping Rufus kick Sherrif Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole) out of Redwood and take over the town.

And that town ain’t big enough for both Buck and Love.

Director and co-writer Jeymes Samuel (aka The Bullitts) plants his flag early, with onscreen text telling us that he may not be telling a true story, but these people did exist. So while you may be reminded of Tarantino (or his many shared influences), this film’s history isn’t alternative. Samuel and his committed ensemble are here to remind us that it’s the whitewashed Hollywood version of the Old West that’s fiction.

Yes, these dusty roads are well traveled and the dialog can be a bit musty (“love is the only thing worth dying for…”), but there’s so much stylish bloodshed, gallows humor and terrific acting in every frame that the film wins you over on pure entertainment value alone.

Plus, it looks fantastic. Samuel frames the landscape with gorgeous panoramas, while wrapping some nimble camera movements and pulsing rhythms around those steely stare downs, frantic shoot ’em ups, freshly-pressed hats and dusters and plenty of other delicious period details.

The Harder They Fall is big, bold, visionary fun. It takes characters, races and lifestyles that have been hijacked by history and reclaims them all with the brashness of an early morning bank job.

This crew ain’t shootin’ blanks, and they rarely miss.

Choosing Wisely

Nine Days

by George Wolf

Will (Winston Duke) is a selector. Inside a modest home situated in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by nothing but flatland, he monitors the progress of his past selections while he carefully prepares to fill a new vacancy.

At the end of nine days, Will must choose wisely. His one selection among a new group of unborn souls will move on the “real world” and experience human life. The rest will not.

In his feature debut, writer/director Edson Oda presents an impressively assured vision of transfixing beauty and gentle poignancy. While the current run on “appreciate every day” films is hardly surprising in today’s climate, Oda brings an organic originality to the mantra of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.

Will does exactly that, via the television monitors (and VHS tapes) that allow him to view the world as his past selections are living it. The monitors also play a role in the selection process, as Will gives his candidates (including Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale and Bill Skarsgård) daily assignments to write down their reactions to the world views they see.

Duke (Us, Black Panther) is phenomenal as a “cog in the wheel” who becomes caught between the clinical completion of his duties and the emotional weight of his responsibilities.

Unlike many in this otherworld – including his assistant Kyo (Benedict Wong) – Will actually spent time living in the real one. And while he won’t discuss details of his life experience, his charming reliance on VCRs and Polaroid cameras gives us a clue about the timeframe. Duke brings touching authenticity to the barrier Will has put up around his past, while also letting us glimpse how Will is haunted by the fate of a past selection, and by the chance he may have chosen poorly.

Oda’s writing and direction exhibit solid craftsmanship. His framing and use of light often work wonders together, conjuring an existential outpost full of strangely comfortable trappings.

The screenplay is finely tuned for each distinct applicant in the process, allowing a standout Beetz and the terrific ensemble to find intimate resonance in the alternately joyous and heartbreaking moments of a life.

Yes, Nine Days often has a lilting air of pretension, but with such a philosophical anchor, it would be more surprising if it did not. Give Oda credit for being unafraid of the moment. He’s taking some big swings at mighty heavy concepts here, with an originality of voice and attention to craft that is welcome any day.