Ted Geoghegan’s debut feature We Are Still Here had its fair share of nasty shocks but it was also something of a treat for horror fans: an affectionate retro tribute with a healthy dose of melodrama starring fan favourites like Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden. His second film, the brutal chase thriller Mohawk, doesn’t want anyone to be in their comfort zone. That applies to the filmmakers too; it’s an ambitious period piece with something to say and it could very easily fall flat on its face. Instead, Mohawk is an accomplished piece of work that succeeds in delivering genre thills and a sharp, timely message.
The film is set in 1812 in the forests of New York, as British and American forces are courting/demanding the allegiance of the Mohawk people in their bloody conflict. Oak (Hemlock Grove’s Kaniehtiio Horn, giving a compelling lead performance) is trying to convince her parents to listen to her lover Joshua (Twin Peaks’ Eamon Farren, showing range in a vulnerable and heartfelt turn), a British soldier who insists that there’ll be no survival if they don’t strike against their enemy now. Joshua’s words strike a chord with Oak’s Mohawk lover Calvin (Justin Rain) who decides to draw first blood, and in doing so brings a small but determined American force down on their head. Now Oak, Joshua and Calvin are on the run, with their enemies close behind.
That aforementioned ambition is backed up by skill and practicality. The film confronts its budget head-on by sugar-coating nothing, as Geoghegan and cinematographer Karim Hussain allow the setting to speak for itself. That lack of over-stylisation also applies to the violence, which is stark and shocking (the practical gore effects are excellent) without sticking around to linger for too long.
But the filmmakers are primarily interested in using this battle to make a larger point. Each action has a reaction, communication is utterly lost (the Americans’ translator, played by Noah Segan, doesn’t seem to know more than three words of his specialist subject), each act of violence leads to another that’s more brutal…and there’ll be no end to it. Captain Holt (the growling Ezra Buzzington) and his men are positioned as the villains as they storm into where they don’t belong, but Geoghegan and co-writer Grady Hendrix are careful to add grief and fear to their racism and brutality. In contrast, Joshua is a nobler figure, but his purpose for being there in the first place is convincing the Mohawk people to die for his cause.
Once the film introduces its sensibly ambiguous genre element in the final act there is some cathartic enjoyment to be had from watching Oak turn the tables on her pursuers and become the thing they are so terrified of, but only some. It is a satisfying thriller but, for the most part, Mohawk wants to show us the hopelessness and cruelty of this conflict and this sorry chapter of American history.