With the Western in extremely short supply these days, it is always exciting when a new oater rides into cinemas. 2023 began with a good one, Brett Donowho’s “The Old Way” starring Nicolas Cage. As we come to the year’s halfway point, we are treated to another, Anthony Mandler’s “Surrounded”.
Set in 1870, Mandler’s picture tells the tale of ex-slave Mo Washington (Leticia Wright), a former Buffalo Soldier who, as she did to be able to serve in the army, continues posing as a man to assure herself safe passage through an unforgiving land.
Mo finds her way to a stagecoach filled with three other passengers: steadfast lawman Wheeler (Jeffrey Donovan), whiskey salesman Mr. Fields (a miscast Brett Gelman), and the snooty racist Mrs. Borders (Augusta-Allen Jones).
Forced to sit outside on the rear footboard by the bigoted stagecoach driver, Mo’s journey begins.
The stagecoach is attacked by a supposed notorious outlaw Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell) and his gang.
The screenplay (from Andrew Pagana and Justin Thomas) makes a grave error by doing nothing to explain why Walsh is such a feared character. People just react appropriately as Bell walks around with a cigar in his mouth and a stern look on his face.
On sight, the character isn’t very intimidating, until he shoots a passenger in the gut for trying to overpower him. Walsh’s scraggly gang seem much more intimidating, especially Goldie, played by Luce Rains. The actor is an authentic presence whose worn face belongs in Westerns. Director Mandler could have benefited by giving him more screen time.
After a shootout where people are killed, the lawman and the stagecoach driver take the injured whiskey salesman to town, leaving Mo and Walsh alone, the outlaw chained to a tree.
A hunt for buried loot will take the two on a journey to find it, as a battle of will and trust ensues between the two characters.
It is here where “Surrounded” becomes a two-character piece that results in a psychological impasse between Mo and Walsh. The film uses the two characters to examine the life of a slave and the reaction of those who can never possibly understand what it takes to survive it.
Wright and Bell try their damndest to overcome the script’s character development shortcomings.
It is in the creation of Mo Washington where the writers fail. She is an ambitious woman with a chance for a mission to achieve a better life. Good with a gun, Mo is allowed only one moment to open up about how she lived as a slave. Beyond this scene, the audience is given nothing else that resembles depth, therefore relegating Mo Washington as more caricature than character.
Unfortunately, the miscasting of Leticia Wright shows she doesn’t have the skill to navigate the character. The actress can’t find the momentum to make a mountain out of a molehill and fails to sell Mo and her plight. The lead role becomes a mere spoke in the wagon wheel of her own film.
Jamie Bell works hard to make Tommy Walsh count. While he is good in the role, Bell tends to overact. Perhaps the actor was desperate to find the depth the screenwriters couldn’t achieve.
The filmmaker and his cinematographer Max Goldman give the film a properly gritty look, making good use of the New Mexico locations. The dust and terrain give “Surrounded” a genuine Western look.
The good camerawork wears out its welcome, as they repeat the same shots time and time again. After the sixth or seventh dark figure shadowed by the sun, the well-drawn compositions lose their luster.
It is a shame that no one knows how to score Westerns these days. Depending on what type of style a film is going for, directors always knew how to use a composer’s music to give the proper feel of the Old West.
Composers such as Dimitri Tiomkin and Elmer Bernstein could give a Western a grand musical canvas as big as the films they were scoring.
Filmmakers such as Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill used the music of Jerry Fielding and Ry Cooder (respectively) to invoke a sense of time and place. Peckinpah upped the ante by having Bob Dylan score his 1973 Western “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”, the songs becoming a troubadour telling the tragic tale of the two gunmen.
Apart from a select few, today’s Western scores have lost the ability to become a part of the film’s vision. Most of them sound no different from the latest Hollywood action films, riddled with modern sounding drum effects that take an audience out of a picture set in the 1800s. Tragically, Robin Hannibal’s work for this film is an example of this and shows how a misguided score can kill a film’s aura.
There is one great moment held within Mandler’s film. In the dark of night with only a fire lighting the scene, Mo and Walsh are approached by a man who is either friend or foe. His mysterious presence puts Mo, Walsh, and the audience on edge and creates a gripping tension. As the stranger is expertly underplayed by the late Michael K. Williams, the scene is elevated and becomes quite a nail-biter.
If only the entire picture could have sustained this mood, though it holds some good ideas. I commend its telling the experience of a freed Black woman and what it meant to be truly free in 1870 America.
It was an interesting design to examine the comparisons in the characters of Mo and Walsh and how both had ties (in different ways) to the country’s racist beginnings.
The issue lies in the execution. Anthony Mandler’s intent was to bring a Western of substance with bursts of truth as forceful as the film’s gunplay. This seems to be a film that lands somewhere between Budd Boetticher’s Randolph Scott Westerns and Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales”.
“Surrounded” has the look and the good cast but fails in the drama and character development; two major stumbles that fail the narrative and ultimately, the film.
Written by Andrew Pagana and Justin Thomas
Directed by Anthony Mandler
Starring Leticia Wright, Jamie Bell, Jeffery Donovan, Luce Rains, Brett Gelman, Michael K. Williams
R, 100 Minutes, MGM/BRON Studios/Black Hand