Written by: Ted Geoghegan, Grady Hendrix
Directed by: Ted Geoghegan
Starring: Kaniehtiio Horn, Ezra Buzzington, and Eamon Farren
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"They're going to kill us all if we don't fight."
The horror genre is full of tales involving doomed travelers going off the beaten path, traversing into some unknown wilderness, where the inhabitants don’t take kindly to such intrusions and will stop at nothing to violently repel or obliterate them. It is perhaps among the most tried, true, and—arguably clichéd—horror formulas, one that’s been mined again and again to prey upon fears of unknown lands and their untold horrors. While Ted Geoghegan’s Mohawk isn’t exactly a straightforward horror film of this sort, it certainly feels inspired by them as it also cleverly inverts them, forging a microcosmic revenge picture from the larger historical atrocity of Native American genocide. We know now that the brutal interaction between European powers and Native peoples resulted in the mindless, devastating slaughter of the latter, and Mohawk seeks to dramatize—with a dollop of grindhouse exploitation—this on an intimate, brutal scale: in this case, the damned tourists represent an entire culture’s misguided trek into Native land, where they meet a much-deserved doom.
Set during the War of 1812, the film finds the Mohawk tribe standing firmly neutral in the renewed hostilities between the Americans and the British. However, they can feel the tug from either side, as both have entrenched themselves right alongside Mohawk territory. Sensing that his tribe will never truly be rid of the Americans who have spent decades oppressing them, a young Mohawk named Calvin (Justin Rains) torches an encampment of soldiers. Some survive, however, and vow swift, bloody vengeance, sending Calvin fleeing into the woods alongside Joshua (Eamon Farren) and Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn), his two polyamorous lovers who also find themselves running for their lives.
Bolstered by a ruthless efficiency, Mohawk doesn’t grow any more complicated from that lean logline: it’s the sort of film that needs less than ten minutes to coil itself up before violently unwinding through a series of brutal encounters that slowly but surely decimates both sides. Again, it’s not exactly the stuff of a horror film, but it takes on the tenor of one: Mohawk often proceeds like a body count movie, with a group of folks entering the woods, only to be picked off one-by-one. Except in this case, most of them completely and utterly deserve their butchery; sure, a lot of splatter movies invite the audience to subconsciously revel in its victims’ outrageous demises, but Mohawk takes it to another level by offering up a set of deranged, racist Americans to the chopping block.
There’s a sense of historical fantasy here, one that allows these tormented Natives to gather a measure of cinematic retribution against their tormenters, many of them blown up here to the level of absurd caricatures. The Americans are led by Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington), a callous soldier who can barely conceal his sick glee when his commanding officer is killed, allowing him to ascend to the rank of general during this quest for vengeance. Where some in his ranks are a little more reserved and practical about the situation, Holt’s bloodlust gives him a self-destructive tunnel vision. Buzzington’s features and general demeanor imagine this guy as the gym coach from hell, all wild-eyed and resistant to even a hint of insubordination. Many of his lackeys are similarly ridiculous, meaning it’s quite triumphant when their comeuppance arrives in the form of hatchets and sharpened arrows.
Of course, the Americans aren’t exactly helpless themselves and exact their own pounds of flesh, making Mohawk more of a back-and-forth affair where both sides mercilessly attack the other. All of it is exactingly brutal: as cartoonish as the dynamic sometimes feels, the violence is unrelentingly savage, as Geoghegan and co-writer Grady Hendrix conjure up a brutal assortment of compound fractures, eviscerations, and straight-up torture. Mohawk is a stark reminder that America’s fruited plains were sewn with crimson, its hills often spilling over with the blood of those who were here before. Not only is this a twisted take-off of wrong turn horror—it might best be described as a home invasion thriller writ large, as this trio fends off the ultimate intruders in the colonialists dedicated to hunting them down.
Despite some black-hearted absurdity scattered around the edges (most of it found in a handful of playful performances), Mohawk is defined by this grim, escalating violence between both camps: neither considers surrender or retreat to be viable options, so the tension builds to a boil, spilling over with a shocking outburst that demands an equally wicked reprisal. It’s at this point—when Oak is forced to survey and reckon with the carnage around her—that the film becomes a delirious sort of horror picture. Strange visions of masked elementals intone her to seek vengeance for those she has lost at a nearby mission camp, which shrouds over with mist and fog here, effectively setting an ominous stage for a final confrontation filled with jolts and ferocity. Mohawk’s otherwise sun-splashed photography yields to midnight hues, with only destructive flames left to illuminate the horrors unfolding.
But it’s a righteous sort of horror, to be sure. Throughout Mohawk, Horn (an actress of Mohawk descent, it should be noted) smolders as Oak, revealing a constant intensity with the defiance that’s etched onto her face. Her dialogue is scant, making her turn even more impressive as her eyes well up with a mixture of terror, anguish, and, finally, a violent rage during the climax. You feel the weight of what she has lost, and the film is deft in its treatment of the triangle between Oak, Calvin, and Joshua. At first, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when it seemed like the script was resorting to the clichéd (and awful) trope where the female protagonist is cheating on her beloved with a close acquaintance; however, this is instead just a refreshingly polyamorous relationship that goes unremarked upon, nor is it exploited for cheap, trashy drama. It’s simply a trio of very close friends, all of them committed to surviving alongside each other. A lone revelation between them does heighten the urgency, but the narrative is otherwise unburdened by needless conflict and drama.
Which is not to say it’s without nuance or insight, mind you. Mohawk is certainly a condemnation of the colonial practices that largely eradicated an entire population from the planet, but it seeks to expose its sick, systemic nature. Hezekiah Holt is the face of unapologetic American bigotry, yet he’s surrounded by other, less overt (but no less complicit) faces. Some of his men—his tracker (Robert Longstreet sporting an odd pair of steampunk-style goggles), his translator (Noah Segan, perfectly weaselly and cowardly), his loyal soldier (Jonathan Huber, aka WWE’s Luke Harper in an eye-opening turn—I’m pretty sure he has more dialogue in 90 minutes here than he’s had in 5 years of wrestling programming)—raise concerns throughout about this unhinged quest. Some do so out of self-preservation, while others insist upon seeing justice carried out in the American court system: none of these concerns are raised vociferously enough, though, so these self-fashioned decent men never reasonably stand up to Holt’s cult of personality, allowing his obsession to destroy just about everyone on both sides.
It’s a familiar tale, one that’s unfolded throughout history on multiple continents: any sort of violent cultural conflict can’t flourish without the complicit silence of supposedly good men, and Mohawk is a fascinating snapshot of this particular instance. Europeans didn’t conquer the Americas in one fell swoop: it was an agonizing process built on centuries of hostility and resentment. Interestingly, the conflict here is actually set off by a Mohawk, a reminder that many indigenous people felt as if they were pushed into a corner, with violence serving as their only means of escape. Your first impulse is to perhaps condemn Calvin’s actions, but couching this sort of conflict into a pulp revenge thriller has you wondering if you really can, no more than you can condemn the violent acts of protagonists in traditional home invasion movies.
With Mohawk, Geogeghan continues to be a rising star in the genre ranks. Admittedly, it’s not quite as polished (the dialogue is sometimes a touch on the nose) or atmospheric as We Are Still Here, but there’s something bold about this effort I can’t help but admire. Anytime someone has the audacity to follow up a Lucio Fulci tribute with a violent revenge thriller set during the War of 1812, you have to take notice and respect the hell out of that. What I love most about both of Geogeghan’s films is his blend of unabashed pulpiness with genuine concerns: just as We Are Still Here is a pyrotechnic gore show and a haunting exploration of grief, so too is Mohawk an exercise in unflinching brutality and a reminder of the underlying—an horrifyingly universal—dynamics that allow that violence to thrive. Mohawk might be particularly set during the War of 1812 in America, but it could have easily been set on any other continent during any other point in history, whether it be late-19th century Africa or the present-day Middle East.
Through the various impalements, stabbings, and gunshots, one agonized, collective howl rings through with haunting authenticity: “we should have never, ever come here,” a character cries. Typically, you might be able to muster at least a smidgen of sympathy for characters in this situation; in Mohawk, you can’t help but grimly agree and consider this a well-deserved suffering.
Mohawk is now available on DVD & Blu-ray from Dark Sky Films.
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