Ted Geoghegan’s second feature film is quite a departure from 2015’s We Are Still Here. While his first movie was a gushing love letter to horror’s history of haunted houses and small town secrets, Mohawk treads into lesser-known territory. The War of 1812 makes a compelling backdrop for a tale of torture, vengeance, and cultural invasion.
It would be unfair to categorize Mohawk as a horror film, but it would also be unfair to fail to mention the more horrific aspects of it. In fact, whenever I think of Mohawk, the word “brutal” is the first thing that comes to mind.
The plot follows three young lovers as they struggle to stay alive and outrun soldiers at the tail end of the war. The Mohawk tribe is insistent on remaining neutral, but that stance is quite difficult when the British keep hunting and killing people on their land. Okwaho (Kaniehtiio Horn) is just trying to honor her mother’s wishes and keep both Joshua (Eamon Farren) and Calvin (Justin Rain) safe when they encounter a soldier. Holt (Justin Rain) is on a power trip with his small band of men and doesn’t think kindly of either the native people or their American friend. When their game of cat and mouse goes horribly awry, Okwaho find the strength of her ancestors and finally refuses to back down.
Mohawk features era-accurate costumes and dialogue, but it doesn’t feel like a stodgy period piece. Much of this authentic feeling comes from the minimal sets and the focus on personal interaction and story momentum, rather than elaborate production design or unnecessary historical context. The script has a narrow focus on action. Like any successful film, it’s buoyed by relatable characters, a compelling story, and pure performances.
Mohawk takes risks. It’s a risk to have a non-monogamous relationship at the center of the movie. I cannot recall seeing one on screen before, let alone one framed as healthy and supportive. It’s also a risk to have the film take place nearly entirely out in the woods. The setting is completely central to the experience of the film, and the disorienting nature of… well, nature only enhances the disadvantaged position of the foreign soldiers. Further, Mohawk takes a risk by having an unusual plot structure. It starts out slowly, but ends in utter mayhem. However, it should not be considered a risk to cast indigenous actors in indigenous roles. Representation is important, and all of these actors are perfectly cast.
Mohawk is by no means perfect, but it’s unlike any other recent film, and I’m grateful for that. The movie is now available on Netflix. It was one of my favorites from last year’s festivals, and I think it deserves more attention than it has gotten.