Surrounded (2023) Review
Surrounded is the latest in a long line of black themed Westerns that stretches from early efforts like The Bull-Dogger and Harlem on the Prairie through John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge and Blazing Saddles. Blacksploitation star Fred Williamson had a string of horse operas, such as Take a Hard Ride and the provocatively titled Boss N*gger, one of three films he made to use that word in the title. More recently we’ve had Django Unchained and Murder at Yellowstone City, neither of which impressed me. Can this unhyped and unheralded entry in the genre deliver the goods?
Five years after the end of the Civil War former slave and Buffalo Soldier Moses “Mo” Washington (Letitia Wright, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Aisha) is traveling west. Mo has a secret, two of them in fact, one is the deed to the parcel of land they’re traveling to. The other is that Mo is a woman who has been passing as a man since she signed up for the Army.
This leg of her journey is not going well, despite paying for a ticket she’s forced to ride outside on the stagecoach’s buckboard, the era’s equivalent of the back of the bus. She’s obviously angry but keeps quiet, willing to put up with it in order to get her trip over with. Fate has other plans however and the stage is attacked by Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell, Man on a Ledge, Rocketman) and his gang.
Mo’s skill with a gun is instrumental in foiling the attack and capturing Walsh. But in the process, the stagecoach, and Mo’s deed, go over a cliff. The survivors leave Mo to guard Walsh while they head back to town to get the sheriff. But as night begins to fall it becomes obvious that the desert isn’t as empty as it would appear.
Director Anthony Mandler has one previous feature, Monster, and music videos for everyone from Drake to Muse on his resume. Writers Andrew Pagana and Justin Thomas are similarly inexperienced with features. Pagna has written some shorts and TV shows while Surrounded marks Thomas’ first credit.
But their lack of experience hasn’t prevented them from making Surrounded a tight film that delivers both action and suspense. Much of the film is a two-character piece centering around Walsh’s attempts to gain his freedom. He first tries intimidation and then when that doesn’t work he tries a different approach, trying to convince Mo that they’re alike, outcasts due to circumstances beyond their control. Mo is wary, knowing she shouldn’t trust him but he certainly sounds convincing.
Wright and Bell both deliver excellent performances that put the viewer in the same place as Mo, trying to decide if Walsh is sincere and can be trusted. In his last role, the late Michael Kenneth Williams (Hap and Leonard, Lovecraft Country) also delivers a solid performance as Will Clay, another character whose motives may not be what they first appear to be, a theme that runs through Surrounded.
Hanging over all of this is the knowledge that the surviving members of Walsh’s gang are out there somewhere and will be coming back and, whether Walsh is sincere or not will have to be dealt with one way or another. A climactic gunfight is a Western staple and Surrounded delivers an excellent one that isn’t afraid to get messy and bring in tree branches and a large rock as well.
Surrounded sat on a shelf for two years before being released direct to digital, and that’s a shame because apart from the film’s overall quality, the cinematography by Max Goldman, another music video veteran, is stunning and deserved to be seen on a big screen. The desert vistas look like something out of a classic Western with the addition of several striking drone shots.
After sitting through so many subpar Westerns recently Surrounded was just what I needed. It’s a well written and well acted film with plenty of suspense punctuated by often brutal action. If you’re a fan of the genre you’ll want to see it.