Horror is often affixed to tragedy, especially in the movies, and rarely are the two so intensely and emotionally entwined as they are in Mohawk.
Mohawk, the second film from horror director Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here), is a down and dirty chiller that illustrates the genre’s unique ability to channel and illustrate the awful truths of American history. The story — a revenge saga set during the War of 1812 that pits a group of bloodthirsty United States soldiers against a trio of renegade heroes — suggests a Tarantino-esque stunt, but Geoghegan, who wrote the script alongside horror novelist and critic Grady Hendrix (My Best Friend’s Exorcism), doesn’t give in to revisionism. Instead, he depicts a fictional and somewhat abstracted incident that’s imbued with the era’s hardest and harshest truths. More than just a frenetic crowd-pleaser, the film is a careful consideration of the abuse endured by the Mohawk nation at the hands of the United States and British armies.
Where We Are Still Here is anchored in mood and atmosphere, Mohawk is unrelenting and chaotic, offering little in the way of calm or quiet. Indeed, this is turbulent chase-thriller territory, centering on two members of the Mohawk tribe — a young woman, Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn), and the slightly older Calvin (Justin Rain) — who carry out an attack on a ruthless American militia led by the sadistic army captain Hezekiah (Ezra Buzzington), this despite the rest of the Mohawk tribe’s wishes to remain neutral in the conflict at large. At Calvin and Oak’s side is Joshua, a sympathetic Brit played by Twin Peaks: The Return’s Eamon Farren. Both groups manage to get the drop on each other at various points throughout their skirmish, and Geoghegan and his able crew deliver a series of micro-budget shootouts and fight scenes filled with enough blood and gore to satisfy a Fangoria photo spread.
But the conflict resonates beyond these visceral and unnerving thrills. “In my experience,” Joshua tells a militia member in response to his anti-indigenous jeremiad, “it’s the white man that does the scalping.” The screenwriters invest Joshua, Oak and Calvin with rich inner lives and complications without slowing down the story’s rapid pace — things move so quickly, in fact, that there isn’t much time to contemplate their open, threeway polyamorous romance. The evil-minded Hezekiah is similarly multidimensional. The film supplies him and his cohorts with just enough rationality to make their vicious crusade that much more disturbing, if not disquietingly logical. Even the scenes that feel borrowed from other sources (Hendrix and Geoghegan are devout genre nerds) are rendered surprisingly unique. We’ve all seen an action hero commandeer a stranger’s vehicle for a quick getaway, but never quite as harried or desperately as it’s seen here.
Taking place almost exclusively in a dense and verdant forest, the film gradually moves from action thriller to mystic horror, but it ends up losing its footing in the process. Following scene after scene of murder and mayhem, one character is forced to observe that “We’re the only monsters left in these woods.” From there, the film, having already dabbled in a series of nightmarish and quasi-experimental interludes, twists toward the more overtly supernatural. Geoghegan finds himself in a familiar space here, but he can’t handle the segue, relying on the film’s creepy synth score to cover up a series of abrupt structural hiccups. (It must be said, however, that Mohawk’s original music, written and performed by Wojciech Golczewski, is a major highlight.) Stuck somewhere between bitter verisimilitude and spooky surrealism, the film quickly loses steam, tripped up by its own obscene momentum and tumbling toward a clumsy denouement.
What we’re ultimately left with, though, is an incisive look at the fallout of intolerance and injustice, themes that emerge naturally from the action. As the bodies pile up, Oak stands as the film’s most interesting and conflicted figure, acting as both the avenging heroine and the fateful “final girl.” She doesn’t delight in violence, and clearly understands that it won’t solve anything, but she also lacks an alternative, such is the psychological conflict that comes from living under the weight of systemic oppression. The men hunting her, indicative of the overarching society that has invaded her life and her land, so vehemently and relentlessly label her a savage that the only we she can escape them is to embrace that very savagery. Horror is often affixed to tragedy, especially in the movies, and rarely are the two so intensely and emotionally entwined as they are in Mohawk.