'Mohawk' Review: A Low Budget History Lesson Of Violence [Fantasia Film Festival]

Fresh from his ghostly triumph We Are Still Here, writer/director Ted Geoghegan finds himself combing the woods for a different kind of horror with Mohawk. One part revenge thriller, one part historical drama, one part home invasion where the United States is the home being invaded, this ambitious indie project delivers a spark of real-world tragedy yet falls prey to its low budget limitations.

The hook of Mohawk seems simple, but old grudges add gasoline to the fire and ensure no one leaves without blood on their conscience. It opens near the end of the War of 1812 as tribe members Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain), and British soldier Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren) try to convince elder Wentahawi (Sheri Foster) to join in war against the Americans. She refuses, and things start racing downhill once Two Rivers murders a bunch of American militiamen as they sleep. A cadre of American soldiers is dispatched to hunt him down, but, like the old adage says, if you embark on a journey of revenge dig, like, fifteen or sixteen graves.

The body and soul of Mohawk are split evenly between all of its characters. The empathy is naturally with Oak and her lovers. One sees a clear advantage to bringing the Mohawk tribe to the British cause, and the other understands that war has already come to their doorstep whether they want it or not. The relationship between the three is tender and strong, which makes the tension of the chase feel deeply personal. Rain – his face and chest painted traditional black from the lips down – offers a stirring intensity, imbuing Two Rivers with a fierce dedication to his loved ones that demands a singular focus on spilling blood.

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If only co-stars Farren and Horn had risen to meet that level. As the Red Coat Pinsmail, Farren is fine and harmless, but Horn doesn't have the chops to lift as much of the movie as she's asked to. She never feels comfortable in the character, the effort to act almost always present. It doesn't help her that she's clothed in a dinky red mini-skirt that looks like it came from the vintage store.

As Oak's dreams of a skull-masked vindicator grow more violent and her focus narrows toward desperate vengeance, Horn emerges as a raw force with a soul-searing gaze, but the road leading to it is a little wobbly. Mohawk is stripped clean of distraction, which makes for an excellent experience, but it also leaves the actors out on limbs, charged with keeping themselves from falling.

On the other side of the chase is the mad Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington), whose Biblical name evokes the level of his fanatic rage. Holt doesn't begin the journey as a mustache-twirler, but his footpath into the heart of darkness sends his entire being screaming into the middle of the forest to devolve into a truly frightening presence. Buzzington is fantastically fun to watch grind his teeth on screen, both in moments of literally naked vulnerability and of headlong terror. His Holt leads a small band of cliche-defying soldiers, anchored by his garbage son Myles (Ian Colletti), thoughtful and massive Lachlan (wrestler-turned-actor Jon Huber), and the profoundly spineless Yancy (genre mainstay Noah Segan).

We spend a long time with them wandering the woods in search of our heroes, which allows Mohawk the time to simmer on a low heat, pitting us against our antique countrymen as they prove without question through their methods and goals that they are worthy of disgust.

Filmed entirely in a New York forest, there's a Midsummer Night's Dream aspect to everything – characters seem to arrive from out of thin air behind trees either to comfort or confront – and it eventually deteriorates into a maddening labyrinth with no horizon to guide any character unlucky enough not to have been raised their entire lives in the shade of the trees.

That disorientation delivered by mother nature and cinematographer Karim Hussain serves the film well, offering both a foundation for the carnal fear of being hunted through a place with great beauty and little peace, as well as a subtext for the confusing eye-for-eye cycle that we know eventually leads to the Trail of Tears.


The film is weakened by not being clearer about its magical realism, failing to take full advantage of that symbolism and to clarify the rules of the chase. That lack of definition leaves the film in an uncomfortable middle ground, characterized most by a semi-supernatural element that appears near the end only to be disappointingly dropped almost immediately in the service of a grittier fight sequence.

Likewise, Mohawk could have pumped the gas harder on its genre tones, to be firm in its drama when it gets dramatic and firm in its horror when it gets fearsome. Those terror-inducing sprees (aided by a rad, synth-y, ahistorical score from Wojciech Golczewski) almost always deliver, but there's one major moment in particular where a character should have been killed (or at least badly maimed) but scrambles awkwardly to safety, leaving us to wonder why the set up was included to begin with beyond how great Geoghegan and company make it look.

Make no mistake, though. There's still a lot of substance to the style. Mohawk does good work to distill colonialism into the bug eyes of Hezekiah Holt and to punish those who are just following orders under a corrupt command.

Mohawk must be praised for its appetite. There's a reason that historical fiction commands a huge budget, and it's a good thing Geoghegan didn't listen to that conventional wisdom. He's crafted a tonal hybrid that's captivating and vicious, fearful and cheer-worthy. There's a lot to love even as it suffers from limitations that could have been avoided and budget limitations that couldn't./Film Rating: 6 out of 10