The highly anticipated follow up to Ted Geoghegan’s breakout debut, We Are Still Here, shifts from the snowy New England setting to the stifling forests of 1814, trading ghosts for the monsters of men. Set toward the end of the War of 1812, the plot follows Mohawk woman Oak and her two lovers, one Mohawk and one British, as they contend with a squad of American soldiers seeking revenge. Geoghegan opted for a more difficult path in his sophomore feature, by diving head first into an ambitious period action horror film heavy on the social commentary.
The budgetary constraints become clear straight away. The inciting event that sets the entire film in motion is handled off screen, with Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain) explaining afterwards to his lover, Oak (Kniehtiio Horn), her other lover Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren), and the rest of his Mohawk tribe that he’s just murdered a bunch of American soldiers while they sleep, against the orders of tribe elders. It’s this offscreen event that in turn spurns a group of soldiers to hunt his people down in revenge. It begins a drawn-out cat and mouse game between Oak’s people and Hezekiah Holt’s (Ezra Buzzington) cadre of soldiers that’s occasionally punctuated by violence and death. Which makes the film sound far more interesting than it really is.
“Geoghegan opted for a more difficult path in his sophomore feature, by diving head first into an ambitious period action horror film heavy on the social commentary.”
The hunter versus the hunted narrative wears thin, because despite Geoghegan’s admirable desire to lend authenticity by hiring Mohawk actors, Horn appears uncomfortable in her role for most of the run time, unable to bear the heavy burden her central role demands of her. In a narrative where both sides make morally questionable choices, Oak is the audience proxy we’re most meant to empathize with as the pacifist eventually forced into violence. Compared to the cartoon-drawn villainy of Ezekiel Holt, and his cadre of one-note soldiers, there’s no one left to turn to but Oak in terms of emotional through lines. She just spends most of the run time hiding behind one or both of her lovers.
It doesn’t help that, in addition to superficially rendered characters, the wooded setting feels small. The nondescript setting makes it difficult to develop a sense of space and depth, as if it’s so small the two opposing parties have no choice but to constantly bump into each other. When moments of violence do erupt, often it’s handled off screen. A gruesome throat slashing is heard but not seen, only cutting to the character’s dying face after. That’s not to say that the film is gore free; when it’s shown it’s glorious. It just takes a while to get there.
“But it’s so ambitious that it’s unable to justify the sum of its parts.”
It’s clear that co-writers Geoghegan and Grady Hendrix want to enrage by depicting the brutality the Mohawk people endured, being drawn into a war of which they had nothing to do with simply for being in the way. But there comes a turning point in their narrative that brings a realization that they’ve employed the three-act structure used in the rape and revenge subgenre, though the rape in this instance is only metaphorical, and nowhere close to being relentless in graphic depiction. I can’t tell if this was an intentional move, but it does feel exploitive in a disappointing way.
As with We Are Still Here, Mohawk crescendos in an explosive finale of brutality that places it squarely in the realm of horror. The late game supernatural element introduced quickly slips into the background as the final showdown turns toward primal carnage. It’s a scene likely to win over genre fans, but perhaps not enough. In terms of emotion, Geoghegan succeeds in invoking wrath, just not in the way he set about it.
Mohawk is an ambitious period piece meant to invoke rage on behalf of the Mohawk people, and the brutal injustices inflicted upon them as an unwitting bystander of white man’s war. But it’s so ambitious that it’s unable to justify the sum of its parts. There’s a reason most period pieces have a much larger budget, and Geoghegan and crew admirably do much with what little they have to work with. It’s easy to overlook the budgetary limitations in special effects and set, but it’s much harder to get past a script that favors raw emotion and eschews character development. In the end, we still don’t know much about the Mohawk people. All we know is that revenge begets revenge, and this feature doesn’t contribute anything new to the subject.