The Oscars used to love a good villain: Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” Sir Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Denzel Washington in “Training Day,” Louise Fletcher in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men,” Gene Hackman in “Unforgiven,” and Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas,” to name but seven former winners who broke bad for gold. But it has been a little while since a proper baddie found favor with academy members and based on the early list of contenders, the 2022 Oscars won’t broadly embrace the dark side either. Unless, of course, voters decide to go West in search of fame, fortune, and adventure, and ride upon “The Harder They Fall,” where two outlaws played by Regina King and Idris Elba steal every single scene not nailed down to the floor.
Set to debut on Netflix starting November 3 and out in select theaters now, the revisionist Western from director Jeymes Samuel focuses on a bandit named Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), who reunites his gang to seek retribution against Rufus Buck (Elba), the man who killed Nat’s parents. Buck is a violent gunslinger with a dark secret, but he’s not alone: King plays Buck’s right-hand woman, “Treacherous” Trudy Smith, a saloon owner who is more than comfortable with shooting first and asking questions later — especially when confronted with the pervasive racism of the Old West. Firmly supporting parts, Elba and King are given ample opportunity to flex their skills, and like sharpshooters, they never miss. These are juicy roles, and both stars give performances that crackle with energy, a sense of devilish fun, and ultimately deep heartbreak and tragedy. As “The Harder They Fall” races toward its conclusion, Rufus and Trudy are more complicated than they initially appeared. The nuance and shading keep either character from being one-note. “By design, I wanted to play someone where what you’re learning about them is uncomfortable as you go along,” Elba said to Vanity Fair in a recent interview. “I didn’t want audiences to hate him.”
Despite the sterling work, however, few if any awards pundits and prognosticators have seriously considered either King or Elba in the supporting races: Elba ranks 32nd among supporting actor candidates in the combined Gold Derby odds, while King has settled into 40th place. Maybe that has something to do with the perception of “The Harder They Fall” as more of a mainstream action movie than an austere awards contender, a la the other Netflix 2022 Oscars offerings “The Power of the Dog,” “Passing,” and “The Lost Daughter.” In fact, it would be easy to compile a Best Supporting Actress field simply from those three movies alone (Kirsten Dunst, Ruth Negga, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Buckley, and Dagmara Domińczyk), proof of the embarrassment of riches the streaming platform has in its war chest this season. But King, a winner in the category in 2019 and a serious contender as a director last year for “One Night in Miami,” has to rank among the more beloved actresses of her generation — a performer with such wide approval that she was tapped to open this year’s Oscars ceremony.
“With Regina, there’s just a weight of knowledge she brings,” former Best Actress winner Sandra Bullock said of King in an interview with Vanity Fair earlier this year (the pair worked together on “Miss Congeniality 2” of all things). “I learned pretty quickly, you just, when Regina is in the room, you let Regina have the room. Everyone’s gonna benefit from it, even me.”
Elba, meanwhile, has been on the verge of a nomination for years — and his snub for “Beasts of No Nation” in 2016 remains one of the most perplexing in the last decade. (Elba did win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Spirit Awards despite being ignored by the academy.) Speaking to Vanity Fair, Elba chalked it up to Netflix being in the nascent stages of its awards season supremacy. “It was essentially not part of an established system, and therefore wasn’t going to be recognized in the same way, right?” he said.
But that’s all changed: the service has paced the Oscars two years in a row — and even landed multiple nominations for outside contenders like “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and critically reviled flops such as “Hillbilly Elegy” and “The Midnight Sky.” The reviews for “The Harder They Fall,” meanwhile, have been strong and it’s easily one of the most watchable candidates of the year on account of its bang-bang pacing and the way Samuel elevates the film’s genre trappings to reach something original and unique. (In an interview with Vanity Fair, King compared the script to “Pulp Fiction” in that “The Harder They Fall,” by centering Black cowboys in a Western, was like nothing she’d read before.)
All of which is to suggest that those sleeping on both King and Elba in categories that remain wide open and seemingly without runaway contenders should maybe heed the message of the Western’s title and shift focus to these early underdogs. After all, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
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