New York 1814, late into the War of 1812, and a Mohawk woman, Oak, and two men, Joshua and Calvin, are hunted down by a squad of American soldiers hell-bent on revenge for an attack on their camp. The Americans chase the trio deep into Mohawk territory and further away from safety.
Mohawk starts with Joshua Pinsmail, a British soldier and one of Oak’s lovers, making an impassioned plea to the leader of the Mohawk nation to drop their neutrality, take up arms and rise against the American army. Feeling the burden of the invading American forces and shame that the Mohawk would not take a side in the war, and spurred on by Pinsmail’s words Calvin Two Rivers, Oak’s other lover, goes on his own and raids a nearby American camp thus encurring the vengeful wrath of Colonel Hezekiah Holt and his small troop of survivors.
There is a prevailing mysticism about the film, as first instigated by the aura and glow from shooting the film in natural light. That mysticism seeps into the story through three strong and unsettling visions that Oak has which are relevant to revelations she has about herself and the physical changes she is experiencing. Oak’s journey concludes with her embracing more of that spiritual power which in turn enhances her physical power. Mohawk is largely about Oak’s personal journey through this horrible day. The closing of Mohawk suggests that she has risen from the ashes and torment of the day's events to become more powerful and ready to lead her people.
Member of the Mohawk nation, Canadian actress Kaniehtiio Horn soars as Oak. Her performance is at times nuanced and subtle, turning into emotional and fierce. Her work is complemented by those of her two lovers, Eamon Farren as British agent Joshua Pinsmail, and member of the Plains Cree nation and Canadian actor Justin Rain as Calvin Two Rivers. Both of them react to their circumstances differently. We already know that Calvin Two Rivers is impulsive and his acts endanger the lives of everyone around him. Pinsmail is, well, British. A gentleman thrust into an ungentlemanlike situation. But Mohawk is all about Oak and her journey.
The collection of the Americans crosses the spectrum. Jon Huber, the lumbering Lachlan Allsopp, who should be a formidable foe due to his size, like the rest is concerned that this deep into the woods they are far out of their element. Robert Longstreet, the experienced tracker Sherwood Beal. His character is the bridge between sensibility and lunacy, but sides with lunacy. Noah Segan, the snivelling translator Yancy, has played variations of this character before. There is the sense that every one of them knows better than to chase the trio into their territory.
Of the Americans though surely it is the Holts, father and son, Ezra Buzzington as Hezekiah Holt and Ian Colletti as his son Myles Holt, who radiate a dark and menacing hue. The first American Pinsmail meets in the forest is the younger Holt and you feel the malevolence in the exchange. Then Hezekiah comes along and you see the how twisted and contorted the tree from which the apple fell truly is. As the day wears on and the numbers begin to thin out the elder Holt has an awakening of sorts. Deep into the woods with Oak circling around them, out of reach, Holt, in an attempt to bolster the remaining men talks of eliminating every threat they have faced to that day, be it man or beast. He proclaims that having eliminated everything else, “We are the only monsters left here”. Listening to this with our 21st century ears? Truer words have never been spoken.
The look and feel of Mohawk places the film into a different era. With the tilts, pans and zooms in the wide angle shots, to the diffused glow of sunlight off of the lighter colors, Mohawk bears the visual soul of cinema from the 1970s. When asked about the artistic style and choices of Mohawk Geoghegan cited Sergio Corbucci (Django and other spaghetti westerns) as an influence. There is a rawness to the film’s execution, from the acting to the filming. It is an absence of modern Hollywood gloss that sets its own texture and feel.
It would be easy for the production to make the environment as foreboding as possible in a pic that is one long chase scene, make it close in on our heroes and villains, make it play a part in their disorientation and fears. Instead, Geoghegan took the very rare turn of choosing to shoot in the natural light and drape it in green as often as he could, citing John Boorman's The Emerald Forest as inspiration for the colors. The forest is not the enemy here. Quite the opposite, as it bright and open. Yet somehow it still grants a sense of mystery as characters pop up out of nowhere, somehow hidden in the wide, bright expanse until everyone is almost on top of each other. There is a sadness in seeing the beauty of the forest tainted by the blood of savage humanity.
The violence is succinct and brutal. The monstrosity of man is on full display at times. Hardly any of it is exploitive, yearning to sway your opinion - who is the most savage to the next - though you will have gone into a screening of Mohawk all ready to side with Oak and her lovers out of a sense of social and moral obligation. No one dare cheer for the Americans. You wish for it to be as cut and dry as First Nations People = Good, Imperialistic Americans/Britons = Bad, but you are reminded that the acts of Calvin Two Rivers are what brought the Americans down on them in the first place. As the story progresses of course you take a side, it would be hard not too. But Mohawk starts from a grey place, the acts of individuals from both sides endangering everyone close to them.
There is much to digest and reflect on about after watching Mohawk. As stated earlier, it starts somewhere in the moral middle. Yet, with hundreds of years of abject mistreatment of the FIrst Nations peoples you are ready from the beginning to side with Oak, Joshua and Calvin. All it takes is a little push in that direction and the actions of despicable characters do the rest for us.
As an action drama it sets a heart racing pace, slowing down at moments to give time to focus or reflect on our inhumanity to each other. I felt that the violence could have pushed a little further. Must be a sadist in me somewhere. Still, there are some harrowing moments in Mohawk that will make you shudder.
As social commentary it reinforces what we know and what we have a hard time admitting. While acts and gestures of reconciliation have been made by different world leaders now and again there is still much to be done. Mohawk ends with a dedication to ‘the brave water protectors of Standing Rock who used solidarity and peace to fight for the future of North America’. Mohawk is not about to solve those issues, but it reminds us that they are there, remaining to be dealt with.
Review originally published during Fantasia in July 2017. Also see Kurt Halfyard's fascinating interview with director Ted Geoghegan. The film arrives in select theaters and various VOD platforms on Friday, March 2 from Dark Sky Films.