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Vengeful spirits and grisly sadism feature prominently in Ted Geoghegan’s Mohawk, but this 1814 tale of Native- versus Anglo-American conflict isn’t quite the exploitation flick many Fantasia attendees will expect. Respectful of its heroes’ suffering and willing (for a while, at least) not to afford them the usual big-screen satisfactions, it mourns a centuries-old genocide through the torment of three young protagonists. Its peculiar angle on the struggle presents difficulties marketing to genre audiences who’ll expect a more conventional cat-and-mouse thriller, but many who find the low-budget period piece will appreciate its seriousness.
In his day job as a film publicist, Geoghegan is well known to the kind of horror fiends (and critics) who come to Fantasia; his first film, 2015’s haunted-house pic We Are Still Here, played directly to that crowd. He doesn’t seem to want to shake that mood entirely here: As we move through the woods of New York state, characters tend to make their entrances as if in a thriller’s shock-cut. The trees of these woods aren’t packed densely enough to explain why people so frequently fail to see each other coming.
That tendency, a comfort with extreme gore, and Wojciech Golczewski’s mildly Carpenter-esque score are our main clues that Mohawk will not remain 100 percent in the realm of historical realism. But until the third act, Geoghegan and co-writer Grady Hendrix keep the conflict realistic and very personal.
Our protagonists are a young Mohawk woman and man named Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Calvin (Justin Rain) and a British man they’ve befriended named Joshua (Eamon Farren). Though the script doesn’t spell it out bluntly, the three are engaged in a consensual romantic triangle of some sort. More explicit is the characters’ belief that, though the Mohawk people have yet to join the present war between Britain and America, it is time to take the side of the British against those busy claiming this continent as their own.
As the story gets going, in fact, Calvin is being pursued for a raid he seems to have made on his own initiative, killing American soldiers at one of their outposts. A motley but determined gang of survivors is on his trail, with one, the bloodthirsty Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) eager to kill any Native Americans he’s able to find.
Over the course of one day, the two groups circle each other in the forest, with captures and rescues and skirmishes making it unclear who has the upper hand. For a moviegoer reared on a certain kind of retelling of this history, it is unsettling to realize, over the course of several bloody encounters, that Geoghegan’s protagonists are neither noble victims nor action-hero primitives: They watch atrocities impotently; they fail to exploit advantages when they might have them. The Americans can be similarly hard to pigeonhole, bickering over whether to rush to safety or keep hunting until they’ve killed every enemy they’re trailing.
In fact, the film affords its villains more character development than its heroes, though we do get cryptic glimpses of a vision haunting Oak that foreshadows the movie’s end. When this vision is made manifest, its violence is more ritualistic than cathartic, an encounter whose unlikelihood in literal-minded terms encourages us to read it as myth. A closing dedication of the film to the “water protectors” of the Standing Rock protests reminds us that, when the oppressed stand up to the powerful, the difference between victory and defeat isn’t always as obvious as it seems.
Production company: Snowfort Pictures
Cast: Kaniehtiio Horn, Ezra Buzzington, Jonathan Huber, Eamon Farren, Noah Segan, Ian Colletti, Sherri Foster, Robert Longstreet, Justin Rain
Director: Ted Geoghegan
Screenwriters: Ted Geoghegan, Grady Hendrix
Producers: Greg Newman, Travis Stevens
Executive producers: Badie Ali, Hamza Ali, Malik B. Ali
Director of photography: Karim Hussain
Production designer: Steven Legler
Editor: Brody Gusar
Composer: Wojciech Golczewski
Casting director: Stephanie Holbrook
Venue: Fantasia International Film Festival
In English, Mohawk and French
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