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Mo Washington (Letitia Wright) is a freedwoman. She has been free for five years since the end of the Civil War, even if she has nowhere to exercise that freedom. She has a deed for land in Colorado, but when her stagecoach is ambushed by marauders, her plan and property are stuck in limbo. Posing as a man, the only power she has to mobilize is that she’s in possession of a wanted outlaw named Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell), whom she holds hostage as leverage on her path West. 

Washington's story unfolds on a landscape that becomes an integral character in director Anthony Mandler’s “Surrounded.” The expanse of open plains and mountainous terrain promises possibility and lawlessness alike. Gunfire reverberates, and the earth itself swirls in the air—dirt and dust permanently kicked into view. The hazy horizons and warmth of the Wild West lend to stunning cinematography, but the bones of the visuals are not enough to support the film. Mandler’s direction is effective for the genre, but there’s a fatiguing number of posed cowboy-against-the-horizon shots that begin to feel kitschy on account of their frequency.

Debut feature writers Andrew Pagana and Justin Thomas are ambitious in taking on a poignant story in “Surrounded,” but ultimately fail the character of Mo Washington. There is a characterless quality that occurs from boiling down her identity to her plight alone. Her ambitions, and obstacles in achieving them, are no doubt empathetic, but the writers fail to align enough background to make her character feel deep. We’re given crumbs as to how she arrived, dressed as a man, on the back of stagecoach out west, but not nearly enough to consider Mo a fully-realized person. 

Tommy is afforded a greater depth of character than the film’s hero, and consequently, is much more interesting. Mo Washington is mostly wordless, acting on moments of stiffened apprehension and tough-as-nails sharpshooting defense. Bell’s Tommy is the one with the running jaw, bouncing between big shows of ego, waxing poetic on the realities of life on the fringe, and crafting laser focused schemes to try and get Mo on his side.

Wright and Bell have good rapport as performers, but Bell takes too much of the spotlight. Where Wright fails to maintain consistency in her performance, hopscotching believability, Bell maneuvers the spectrum of Tommy’s dispositions gracefully. This may partly be due to more thorough writing on his end, but Wright also never truly feels like she’s committing and tends to lose momentum when her scene partner isn’t steering the ship.

“Surrounded” is much like a play, monologues and all, but lacks narrative drive to keep the film trucking along. The pacing sputters in cycles, with a few minutes of intense action devolving into dialogue-heavy droning and then back again. However, the film’s most effective sequence is a nail biter. In his final role, the late great scene-stealing Michael K. Williams approaches Mo and Tommy in the nighttime, and whether or not he can be trusted is as much of a mystery to them as it is to the viewer. 

The film builds tension and executes effective action sequences, but these moments are fleeting. The meat of the film is meant to be a battle of wits (and brawn) between Mo and Tommy. The looming threat of his henchmen is mentioned, but not felt. The thesis of “Surrounded” is most confusing. A sizable chunk of the script is dedicated to collating Mo’s social exile as a Black freedwoman to Tommy’s banishment on account of a life of crime and spuriously included detail that his wife and child were Native. As a viewer, we recognize the inequity of these comparisons, but the film’s stance doesn’t feel as clear. 

“Surrounded” values resilience and honors the realities of what being “free” meant in the time of freedmen, yet its value is diluted by the film’s incessant practice of reiterating its takeaways through dialogue. The visuals are often stunning, and the performances of the supporting cast uplift its entertainment value. But emotional intricacies are simply not there, and in a narrative that relies so heavily on support for its hero, they’re greatly missed. Base human empathy is not enough to inspire investment, and the “we’re more alike than we think” position negates much of the film’s emotional credibility. Mo is a motivating hero, but she winds up an accessory to her own story.

Available on digital platforms on June 20th. 

Peyton Robinson

Peyton Robinson is a freelance film writer based in Chicago, IL. 

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