Monday, June 19, 2023


Mo Washington is part “Little Joe” Monahan (who was the inspiration for the Suzy Amis western, The Ballad of Little Jo) and part Mary Fields, the legendary black old west mail-carrier, who also famously toted a shotgun. Washington has passed for a man since she enlisted in the Buffalo Soldiers. She has ambitions to settle down and build a community, but killing keeps following her in Anthony Mandler’s Surrounded, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

Washington has a gold claim and a dream, but every step of her journey to Colorado is fraught with peril. New Mexico will be where the sagebrush really hits the fan. Despite having a ticket, the racist shotgun-rider forces her to sit on back jump seat of the coach. Wheeler, a lawman passenger, is maybe a little sympathetic to “him,” as he assumes her to be, but only so to an extent.

Nevertheless, when the notorious Tommy Walsh Gang attacks the coach, Wheeler is happy to have Washington’s steady Remington on his side. With her help, they overcome the bandits and capture Walsh, but at a high cost. The coach is lost and perhaps Washington’s dreams with it. Bizarrely, Wheeler leaves Washington to guard Walsh, because holding a gun on a white guy, even bandit like Walsh, is such a comfortable place for him (her) to be in 1870 New Mexico. However, Walsh can see her for who she is. Thus begins a long night of verbal sparring.

Despite the
High Plains Drifter-style hat, Letitia Wright cannot convincingly pass for a guy. Yet, weirdly, Surrounded makes that a virtue, emphasizing how “unseen” Washington moves through life. Walsh’s marginal status gives him a small degree of understanding, which makes his temptations and mind-games very effective drama.

Jamie Bell is terrific as Walsh. By far, this represents his best villainous performance, eclipsing his work on
Shining Girls. Wright’s slow-burn is maybe a little too understated overall, but the restraint is admirable—and logical, given the circumstances. The electric presence of the late Michael K. Williams also really kicks up the intensity when he appears (almost literally out of the night). Plus, the slippery ambiguity of Jeffrey Donovan’s Wheeler greatly serves the film’s dramatic interests.

The intimacy of
Surrounded is quite effective, but Mandler over-stylizes the film. Enough with the lens-flares. Next time trust your cast and characters. Still, this film has a gritty, cynical spaghetti western sensibility that suits its perspective and high-mortality-rate action. Recommended for fans of revisionist westerns, Surrounded releases on digital tomorrow (6/20).