The Civil War has been over for five years. Mo Washington (Leticia Wright) is not only free, she also has an official document promising her a piece of land in Colorado. There might even be gold there. A solitary Black woman making her way through the West is bound to become a target, so she keeps her hair up and her head down, passing herself off as a male. The exciting and thoughtful Surrounded tells the story of what happens to her as the intended plan is severely tested.
Mo pays for a ride on a stagecoach, which is soon ambushed by thieves, led by the notorious outlaw Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell). The coach goes over a cliff in the process, taking her deed with it. Walsh is eventually subdued and tied to a tree by a lawman named Wheeler (Jeffrey Donovan) and his men. He leaves Mo in charge of keeping an eye on the captive while they go procure another coach. She just wants to go root through the wreckage to find the piece of paper that guarantees her future.
Surrounded is about the dynamic between Mo and Walsh as they’re stranded together. There are encounters with Native Americans, as well as a visit from a Black man (Michael K. Williams) who claims he wants to help Mo but may or may not be trustworthy. Walsh’s cohorts launch a rescue mission, too. Beyond those external events, the movie homes in on how the two main characters size each other up. Walsh clearly believes he can manipulate his way into freedom, even promising to share the stash of money he knows is buried in the ground nearby. She, meanwhile, has to determine what move will most benefit her. The point is that, by being forced to stay with Walsh, she’s enslaved again in a different form, and therefore must determine how to proceed with her goal.
The dialogue by Andrew Pagana and Justin Thomas is intelligent and probing, as it reveals the psychological natures of the protagonists. Mo and Walsh are fully-developed characters who are both looking for a big score that will change the course of their lives. Director Anthony Mandler gives the story a strong visual style that brings the frontier alive. He somehow makes the land feel simultaneously vast and constricting.
At the center are two excellent performances. Leticia Wright puts her own spin on the kind of laconic figure Clint Eastwood always played in Westerns. Her Mo is wound tight, as determined to get to her land as she is afraid of being prevented from doing so. You can sense the nervous energy behind this woman’s reserved exterior. Jamie Bell hits an impressive balance as Walsh. The guy is a force to be reckoned with. He’s fearless and intimidating. At the same time, he isn’t inherently hostile to Mo. There’s sort of a basic level empathy for her plight.
Surrounded has two or three slow spots in the middle where the plot treads water. For the most part, though, this is a terrific Western with strong acting and compelling themes.
out of four
Surrounded is rated R for violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.