Producers: Anthony Mandler, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Michael Berman, Derek Iger, Letitia Wright and Ade O’Adesina   Director: Anthony Mandler   Screenplay: Andrew Pagana and Justin Thomas   Cast: Letitia Wright, Jamie Bell, Jeffrey Donovan, Brett Gelman, Michael K. Williams, Kevin Wiggins, Luce Rains, Andrew Pagana, Augusta Allen-Jones and Herman Johansen   Distributor: MGM+

Grade: B-

Westerns are sufficiently rare commodities nowadays that one shouldn’t dismiss even a medium-grade one too quickly.  “Surrounded” has a very simple plot, its message of racial intolerance is rather heavy-handed, some of its contrivances are far-fetched, and it’s ploddingly paced.  But it boasts a good cast, authentic locations, and some gorgeous cinematography by Max Goldman.  On balance it comes out a worthwhile watch, especially for fans of that endangered species, the oater.

The protagonist is Mo Washington (Letitia Wright), a freed slave who became a Buffalo Soldier by posing as a man and has continued the imposture after leaving the service in disgust over the brutality of the Indian Wars.  She’s also used the guise to purchase a plot of land out west and is now traveling to claim it, keeping the treasured deed in her ever-present Bible.

As the movie opens, in 1870, Mo’s boarding a stagecoach for the trip across New Mexico (the film was actually shot in the Land of Enchantment, much of it at the Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu immortalized in Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings).  Curly, the surly driver played by Kevin Wiggins with a touch of Slim Pickens in his drawl, orders Mo to sit on the rear luggage rack rather than with the other passengers—somber lawman Wheeler (Jeffrey Donovan), flamboyant salesman Fields (Brett Gelman) and uptight matron Mrs. Borders (Augusta Allen-Jones).

Traveling through the plains, the coach is attacked by a gang of outlaws led by the notorious Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell), who’s just pulled off a bank robbery.  In the tense encounter that follows, Fields is wounded and the outlaws scattered, save for Walsh, who’s taken prisoner.  But in the film’s most extended action sequence, the stagecoach is dragged toward a cliff by the frenzied horses with the screaming Mrs. Borders inside; and unwilling to take Mo’s hand and leap to safety, she’s carried off with it.  In the aftermath Wheeler and Curly take Fields off to the nearest doctor on foot, leaving Mo behind to guard Walsh until they can return with a posse.

The movie then turns into a dialogue-driven two-hander for a long stretch, with Mo and Tommy parrying with one another for an advantage as they wait and deal with intruders, whether rampaging Comanche or a smooth-talking black man named Clay (Michael K. Williams, in one of his final performances), who claims to be a local farmer offering them help but, Walsh insists, is really an untrustworthy bounty hunter.  Tommy tries to soften up Washington, whose gender he’s recognized, with tales of his background as a Union soldier and the treatment after the war that forced him into a life of crime; he even offers to split the loot from the bank robbery with her if she’ll release him.  Mo firmly resists his blandishments, even though her precious deed of ownership was lost with the stagecoach and her hopes of settling down in peace appear to have been dashed.

Eventually more outlaws show up, and Mo has to deal with the bloodthirsty killers—including a thug huge enough to snap her like a twig—as best she can.  (Be forewarned that one sequence gets pretty gory.  Mo’s definitely unrestrained when it comes to defending herself.)  By the time the posse returns, headed by Wheeler and the local sheriff (Herman Johansen), there are plenty of corpses to deal with, and Mo has to face the possibility that racism will triumph and the better future she envisaged will completely evaporate.

“Surrounded,” edited by Ron Patane, has problems of pacing, and the central plot point regarding Mo’s posing as a man frankly strains credulity, given Wright’s slight frame and very high voice.  (Not without reason does Mrs. Borders question whether Washington is a boy or a girl.) 

But Wright manages to convince us that Mo could have pulled it off, and embodies her steely resolve with economical skill.  Bell makes Tommy a loosely charismatic fast-talker, the sort of fellow even quicker with a lie than with a gun, and it’s nice to see Donovan in a relative good-guy role for a change as the resolute, principled Wheeler.  The supporting cast is fine, with Williams nicely playing a man who might be as deceptive in his way as Walsh and Washington are in theirs, and Gelman, Wiggins and Allen-Jones having obvious fun bringing their Western stereotypes to life.

And the film looks great.  Russell Barnes’s production design isn’t particularly elaborate, but it’s effective, as are Megan Coates’s costumes.  And Goldman’s wide-screen compositions are so sumptuous in their use of the majestic locations that one can understand why director Anthony Mandler (who honed his style on music videos and concert films, many with the Jonas Brothers, before making an auspicious feature debut with 2018’s “Monster”) and Patane would want to linger on them.  (It’s a pity that the film is only being released on MGM’s streaming service and not in theatres, where the images could be seen to best advantage.)  Robin Hannibal contributes a cleverly folksy score.

At a time when Westerns are no longer the staple they once were, it’s a pleasure to encounter one that, despite some flaws, mixes the old tropes with some new twists to generally agreeable effect.