As feature debuts go, director Ted Geoghegan’s 2015 ghost story We Are Still Here was a real kick in the ass: a slow-burn throwback to the work of Lucio Fulci that spent most of its running time building dread and atmosphere before exploding into outrageous gore in its go-for-broke climax. Beyond being an extremely effective haunted house movie (my favorite horror movie of that year), it was also a sad and atmospheric meditation on grief and loss—there was a genuine emotional backbone to the story, making it just as involving as it was scary.
For Mohawk, his 2017 follow-up that recently screened at Chicago’s Cinepocalypse film festival, Geoghegan has done it again, sneaking a real human story into thrilling genre fare. This time out, though, the human story is even more pronounced given its roots; Geoghegan has moved away from the supernatural horror of We Are Still Here and towards a kind of historical horror, recounting the Native American genocide on which the United States was built, albeit within the framework of an exciting, violent, angry action film not entirely out of place with the post-Deliverance survival thrillers of the early 1980s. Mohawk is a movie that can easily be enjoyed as an exciting backwoods revenge film, but its greatness lies in its messaging, in its visual poetry, in its ambiguity.
It is the waning days of the War of 1812, and though the Mohawk people of upstate New York have remained neutral in the conflict between the British and the Americans, Calvin, a young Mohawk man (played by Justin Rain), murders an encampment of American soldiers, thinking he is doing right by his friend, a British soldier named Pinsmail (Eamon Farren, most recently of Showtime’s Twin Peaks revival). A band of American soldiers—among them Ezra Buzzington (2006's The Hills Have Eyes), Noah Segan, and professional wrestler Luke Harper (aka Jon Huber)—seek revenge, pursuing the two men and Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn), the Mohawk woman who loves them both, through the wilderness looking for blood.
Despite being set 200 years ago, Mohawk is very much a movie of our times. This is by design. Director Geoghegan, who co-wrote the screenplay with author Grady Hendrix (My Best Friend’s Exorcism), set out to make a film that reflects the atrocities, the violence, and, most importantly, the racism and hate that served as a foundation for the country and which have been threaded through the last two centuries all the way to today. While he’s smart not to draw any direct parallels (the closest is when one frustrated American soldier shouts something along the lines of, “Why can’t they just speak English?” when talking about the Mohawk), it’s difficult to mistake the fact that Mohawk is no mere “history lesson.” It’s a film that looks at American history all the way through to the present and can only respond with blood-soaked sadness.
There remains in Mohawk some of the same performance inconsistencies found in We Are Still Here, where some actors are incredible and a few other supporting players appear to struggle to find their way. To be honest, this doesn’t bother me, as it gives Geoghegan’s work a rawness that I find incredibly exciting. Both his first film and Mohawk have some rough edges, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. There’s a feeling I get watching his work that these are movies he needed to get on the screen, resulting in films that are crafted very well from a technical standpoint while still exploding with independent spirit. It’s a big part of what made Mohawk such a thrilling viewing experience: it’s a movie that could never have been made within the studio system and exists because Geoghegan and his collaborators willed it into being.
At the center of the film is Kaniehtiio Horn, an actual Mohawk actress whose presence and physicality cannot be overstated. There is no movie in 2017 with a special effect better than the striking sight of Horn’s eyes, painted with a stripe of black and red. Geoghegan and cinematographer Karim Hussain understand this, meaning there are a lot of shots of Horn’s eyes throughout the film, sometimes burning with vengeful hate, other times simply forced to bear witness as crimes are committed against the people she cares about in the name of… what, exactly? I suppose back then they called it “manifest destiny.” These days we’re allowed to call it out as just shitty racism. Without an actor as powerful as Horn, there’s little chance Mohawk would work as well as it does.
I love Mohawk’s ambition and commitment to authenticity. Geoghegan set out to make something challenging, something new, something unlike anything else out there right now, and succeeded. Shot using natural light, on real Mohawk land using real Mohawk actors, this is a film that could have been cheap exploitation, but which cares deeply about its subject matter. And while I would love to say that it offers some of the thrills of cheap exploitation—it is, after all, an exciting and violent and cool little chase movie—it’s hard to lose oneself in the “fun” of those kinds of movies because Geoghegan is always sure to give death weight. There are clear villains here, but they are afforded emotions and motivations and genuinely believe in the justness of their cause. Though the path to understanding is fraught with conflict and bloodshed, it’s easy for us to see with two centuries of perspective what is wrong and what is right. Or maybe it isn’t. After all, if everyone today actually did have that moral difference, maybe a movie like Mohawk wouldn’t need to exist. The humanitarian in me wishes it didn’t have to. The film lover in me is grateful that it does.
Movie Score: 4/5
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