One of the more enjoyable haunted house movies I’ve seen in recent years is 2015’s We Are Still Here from writer/director Ted Geoghegan (yes I friggin’ spelled that without having to Google it), a film I would describe as “not for everyone” given its unique blend of tones that is sure to confuse many. Approaching Mohawk, I knew I could expect another unique film that couldn’t be easily defined and would be sure to spark many discussions amongst horror fans, a theory which was confirmed after having finally watched the movie. Whereas I connected strongly with Geoghegan’s previous effort, Mohawk didn’t resonate as strongly with me, though this politically-tinged revenge thriller is sure to strike a chord with many audiences and deservedly so for its overt criticisms of colonialism.
In the early 19th Century, Americans are still celebrating their hard-earned independence from their English oppressors, though they still have an underlying need to continue their conquests by turning their attention towards Native Americans. The young Mohawk woman Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) is forced to take to the woods after her lover Calvin (Justin Rain) burned down a nearby fort, resulting in the deaths of many soldiers. When a squad of soldiers comes across Oak and her ally Joshua (Eamon Farren), Oak learns that the fires that fuel soldiers without a war to fight pose a deadly threat to anyone who they feel has wronged them.
Mohawk is far from a horror film, instead blending together elements of drama, thriller, romance, and even comedy. Unfortunately, this ambitious blend of tones resulted in an overall uneven experience for me. For example, while I might say there are comedic elements to the film (one of the soldiers wears funny goggles and no one ever brings it up!), it’s unclear if that tone was intentional or if the film was so dark, that any more absurd or oddball moment felt much more exaggerated, creating the stronger contrast. On the other hand, We Are Still Here also featured bizarre and surreal sequences that were juxtaposed by more dramatically heavy scenes, though the entire product fell under the horror umbrella, making it a more appealing experience.
The overall experience of Mohawk might have never gelled with me, yet many of the elements succeeded independently. Horn’s emotional weight and physical performance was the standout element, with Ezra Buzzington‘s military character being a shining example of a soldier in dire need of an enemy to vanquish. Additionally, the complicated tone of the film was mirrored in the complex narrative, as the overall story made you both root for and against characters in an ever-shifting paradigm of perspective. It was hard to sympathize with Calvin burning down a fort, yet when you saw the villainy of the American soldiers, you wished that more soldiers had died in the blaze.
Another one of the more frustrating elements of the film was its limited budget for a story of this scale. Filmed in the remote woods of upstate New York, much of the film feels like it could have been filmed in the woods behind my house. The camera never really pulled too far away from the actors, denying audiences the opportunity to feel immersed in the landscape of the region and instead feeling like you got your friends together for an afternoon of LARPing that just so happened to be filmed. Mohawk‘s finale eventually offered audiences a bigger scale, though it retroactively made everything before that feel that much smaller.
Between the uneven tone and layered narrative, one thing that’s clear is that Geoghegan and co-writer Grady Hendrix have a lot to say about colonialism, which is mostly that it fucking sucks. Many different films that have tackled the specific time period of the Native American genocide paints characters with broad strokes, while Mohawk‘s main characters are far more layered. While the specifics of the story might have challenged your emotional allegiances, the ultimate narrative shows the dangers of xenophobia and the “I’m American so fuck you” mentality that still exists to this day. Oak and Calvin merely wanted to continue to exist on their own land, while Joshua wanted nothing more than to make a living. These themes were far from subtle, which earns the filmmakers praise for sneaking into a genre film, serving as a counterpoint to a jingoistic film like The Patriot.
If you like your genre films to have something to say or traditional revenge thrillers are up your alley, then Mohawk is definitely worth checking out, but the film definitely is “not for everyone” (you know, that thing I said earlier), and in this case, I’m one of the people it isn’t for. But hey! I appreciated what it was trying to do!
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