Synopsis: Former Buffalo Soldier Mo Washington travels West to lay claim to a gold mine. After her stagecoach is ambushed, Mo is tasked with holding a dangerous outlaw captive and must survive the day when the bandit’s gang tries to free him.
Stars: Letitia Wright, Jamie Bell, Jeffrey Donovan, Brett Gelman, Michael K. Williams
Director: Anthony Mandler
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Growing up, I watched my fair share of Westerns on film and television. Anytime I went to my grandmother’s house, I knew that my pleas to watch modern TV would be ignored in favor of programs I’d never heard of. Shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Wagon Train, The Virginian, Rawhide, and the one I could sometimes get into, The Wild Wild West. This is above and beyond the Westerns my parents would drag me to in theaters, or my mom would watch while she ironed. My grandmother also primarily read Louis L’Amour novels, so I was (and am) familiar with this genre’s entertainment landscape. Even so, I might have passed up the new Western Surrounded had it not been for its star, Letitia Wright and a gut instinct I had to give it a look.
The odds do not entirely favor Surrounded if you’re glancing at the base facts. Arriving with little advance buzz and bypassing theaters altogether for a streaming/on-demand debut, this film has been in the can for at least two years, waiting to get released. Screenwriters Andrew Pagana and Justin Thomas have barely any notable previous credits, and director Anthony Mandler is mainly known for stylish music videos, albeit for titans of the industry. While Wright is a BAFTA-winning star on the rise, she’s yet to command a leading role, and her co-star is Jamie Bell, another respectable star that hasn’t come into his A-list potential.
And yet Surrounded is better than you might think and more entertaining than you could imagine. Bolstered off Wright’s superb work and Mandler’s widescreen eye for gorgeous visuals, Surrounded works not like a neo-Western (as so many try to be) but as the kind of Western we would have seen thirty years ago and still be referring back to now. Its old-school ambitions strip it of all the potential genre trappings and make it primarily a two-hander that lives and dies at the hands of its leading characters.
Disguising herself as a man to make easy passage to the West, Moses “Mo” Washington (Wright, The Silent Twins) clutches a most important piece of paper, and it’s not the one that freed her five years before. Instead, it’s a claim to a land of gold she’s been promised, earned after serving as a Buffalo Solider during the Civil War. She’s kept a low profile so far, and boarding a small stagecoach for her trip, she hopes to keep it that way until she reaches her destination. Riding on the back of the coach (some prejudices never die), she settles in for the dusty trip.
The stagecoach doesn’t make it far before they are intercepted by Tommy Walsh (Bell, Rocketman) and his gang. A notorious bank robber that has hidden a recent score somewhere in the nearby vicinity, Walsh is in the middle of mugging the coach members when unexpected heroism results in tragedy for some and severe injury for others. Eventually, Mo is left to watch over Tommy until members of the coach can return with the authorities to carry out justice for his crimes and collect a prime reward for his capture. Tommy is a ruthless criminal, though, and he’ll try anything on Mo to convince her to let him go… who knows what other dangers lurk out of sight as the darkness approaches?
Mandler’s mastery of the look of Surrounded gives early scenes the appropriate golden glow of the Western as we remember it but begins to filter it through the eyes of Mo as the movie progresses into darker territory. The more she becomes entangled with Tommy and the company he keeps/attracts, the chillier the color palette gets. There’s a fantastic action sequence early on, but most of the suspense generated comes from the dialogue between Mo and Tommy as the night wears on, the performances of the actors playing them, and the way Mandler works with editor Ron Patane to keep pacing tight.
Though she finished Surrounded before Black Panther: Wakanda Forever began filming, I found Wright’s performance here a much more convincing argument for her being able to lead her own franchise than that sequel did. Her character development and nerves of steel laid the groundwork for a dynamic figure we immediately take a vested interest in and never waver in support of throughout. Villainy can be an easy job, but it also requires smarts, and Bell makes Tommy nice and smarmy with enough room to change allegiances that you start to trust him even though you (and Mo) know you shouldn’t. In one of his last films to be released, the late Michael K. Williams (Breaking) is, as expected, terrific in a small cameo.
It’s a pity Surrounded didn’t secure a theatrical release because the cinematography from fellow music video lenser Max Goldman is so gorgeous, and Mandler’s direction so astute throughout. Wright and Bell give strong performances that would be nice to see projected on a big screen. While many will see this on a streaming service, it should be available for a few weeks in a theater for those that like that cinematic experience. Any way you are able, make sure you locate Surrounded. Even if Westerns aren’t your genre of choice, this crossover entertainment works on several enjoyable levels.