Combustible Celluloid Review - Surrounded (2023), Andrew Pagana, Justin Thomas, Anthony Mandler, Letitia Wright, Jamie Bell, Jeffrey Donovan, Brett Gelman, Michael K. Williams, Kevin Wiggins, Augusta Allen-Jones
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With: Letitia Wright, Jamie Bell, Jeffrey Donovan, Brett Gelman, Michael K. Williams, Kevin Wiggins, Augusta Allen-Jones
Written by: Andrew Pagana, Justin Thomas
Directed by: Anthony Mandler
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Running Time: 101
Date: 06/20/2023

Surrounded (2023)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Learning Tree

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Talky, but thoughtful and beautifully composed, this post-Civil War-era Western discusses the complex nuances of race and gender, and the shades of discrimination that existed, and which still exist.

It's 1870 in New Mexico. Former Buffalo Soldier Mo Washington (Letitia Wright), posing as a man, boards a stagecoach to Colorado, clutching a Bible that contains a deed to her very own piece of land. The driver, Curly (Kevin Wiggins), allows her passage, but forces her to ride on the back with the luggage. The other passengers include lawman Wheeler (Jeffrey Donovan), smooth-talking, whiskey-swilling Fields (Brett Gelman), and snooty Miss Borders (Augusta Allen-Jones).

Before long outlaw Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell) and his men ambush the stage, resulting in the coach crashing over a cliff, Fields being shot, and Walsh being captured. It's determined that Wheeler and Fields will head to the nearest town to find medical and law enforcement help, and that Mo will be left to watch over Walsh, who has been chained to a tree. The wily criminal begins trying to talk Mo into letting him go, promising half of a massive treasure, buried nearby.

Directed by veteran music video maker Anthony Mandler, Surrounded has a strong, lyrical visual style, using its landscape to powerful effect. A dead, craggy tree, some winding canyons, and sinister woods enhance the story in glorious ways. And lanky Letitia Wright cuts a strong figure, vertical among the emptiness like a tough desert flower.

The screenplay, by Andrew Pagana and Justin Thomas, addresses many themes, starting with the need for Mo to pass as a man. A woman on the stage is done in by her racism; she refuses to take the hand of a Black woman and goes off a cliff. Michael K. Williams, in his final film role, appears as a man who claims to want to help, but may be a bounty hunter; he wonders why Mo doesn't "trust her own kind."

Mostly it's Mo and Tommy, having many discussions about freedom and what it truly means. Indeed, Mo has freedom, but very few choices. Surrounded may be too static for fans of shoot-em-up cowboy movies, but it's a unique, handsome, and necessary addition to the genre.

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