Review by Dan Skip Allen
I've been a fan of Westerns since I was a little kid. Films like High Noon, Unforgiven, and Once Upon a Time in the West showed me what great filmmaking, acting, and writing can do for this genre that has had better days. Recently, some newer voices have put their stamp on the Western genre. None have made a film like Surrounded, though. It is one of the best Westerns I've seen that uses the female gaze as a plot device.
Mo Washington (Letitia Wright) is a young woman who disguised herself as a man and joined the Union to fight in the Civil War. She learned a lot while fighting for her life and the country that didn't care about her, gaining some gunfighter skills in the process. Five years later, she got her claim to a parcel of land in Colorado and plans to go there via Brushwood Gulch, New Mexico. She buys a ticket for a seat on a stagecoach before a ruthless killer, Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell), and his crew hijack the coach. She is again in a fight for survival from all sides.
The director Anthony Mandler uses a story by Andrew Papgana and Justin Thomas, who wrote the screenplay. He creates a battle of wills between the Wright and Bell characters for most of the film, sending them into a game of cat-and-mouse. Who can outdo the other? It's a classic Western trope used to perfection in this movie. This confrontation between these two is why this film is worth seeing.
One of the other reasons why this movie is so good is how it's filmed and lit. Mandler, his director of photography Max Goldman, uses natural light to film this movie. The sunlight is used fifty percent of the time, and it's glorious. Yes, there is the occasional lens flare, but the terrain looks gorgeous. The mountains, streams, hills, trees, and everything in between are brought to vivid life. I love how good this movie looks.
Besides Wright and Bell, there is a nice supporting cast that compliments the two leads. Brett Gelman, Jeffrey Donovan, and Michael K. Williams (in his last role before he died in 2022) all give good performances. They add an element to the story that keeps it interesting. This is a spotlight for Wright and Bell, though. They both bring their A-game that accentuates their abilities as actors.
Mandler, the writers, and especially Wright use this story and role to show young girls that there are roles out there that show Black women in a dominating and powerful role. She is a woman with a past, but has a future. She is determined to make it in a world that hates her. As revenge films or female gaze movies go, this one does a great job of showing a strong woman with good skills and puts them to work well.
MGM has been on a winning streak lately, with several films that have done well with critics and fans. In a packed summer full of blockbusters, Surrounded will have a hard time finding an audience. If I had my way, everybody would see this film. It's a movie that deserves everyone to see, not just women and girls. Fans of revenge films and Westerns will surely love this movie.
Surrounded hits VOD on June 20.