There are horror movies, and then there are HORROR movies. There’s the ones with scenarios and characters that are based on folklore, on pop culture, or on some kind of mythology that clever, talented writers can make up out of whole cloth. There’s also those hyped-up “based on true stories/events” movies that can make that claim by shoehorning in details, characters based on real-life people and events, by some kind of paper-thin association. And then there are those that, even if the situation being presented didn’t happen quite that way, the setting it’s presented in is derived from a time in history, whether it be that of our nation or some country far-flung across the globe, that had enough true-life horrors of its own; where invention of deeds describing “The Evil That Men Do” is completely unnecessary. Such is the case in the latter sense with MOHAWK, the bracing, shattering new film from co-writer/director TED GEOGHEGAN (WE ARE STILL HERE.)
It’s 1814, in the wilds of “New York”, and Mohawk matriarch Wentahawi (SHERI FOSTER from THE UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT) is conferring with British soldier Joshua Pinsmail (EAMON FARREN, who played “Richard Horne” in the TWIN PEAKS revival). Joshua is trying to get her to accept a crapload of hatchets for her people to use against the American whites, to also help aid the British. She refuses, stating that the Mohawk peoples are neutral and unwilling to choose either side. Her son, Calvin Two-Rivers (JUSTIN RAIN of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD) and his partner, Oak, (KANIEHTIIO HORN from HEMLOCK GROVE and THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE), are sitting nearby, and both beg to differ, but especially Calvin, who knows that the Americans think otherwise, and are “making belts out of our people’s skins.” Wentahawi is right to be afraid – she doesn’t want to lose her family to the violence that is claiming so many of the First Nation peoples and knows that it’s only a matter of time until they are forced to choose a side.
The nightmare comes knocking at their doorstep soon enough, when the raging, impulsive Calvin ambushes a bunch of American “long-knives”, sending him, Oak and Joshua on the run, pursued by what could only be described as “Northern rednecks”, led by the brutal, willfully single-minded Capt. Hezekiah “That’s CORPORAL To You” Holt – a career-defining turn by horror genre favorite EZRA BUZZINGTON (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, HALLOWEEN, MIRRORS, AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM). Lots of people on both sides die horribly, with everything leading to a final, devastatingly bloody confrontation that well defines the clash between cultures, and the rabid bigotry that fueled that clash, which unfortunately still exists today, even in the 21st Century, (think Standing Rock, which gets a shout-out in the movie’s dedication.)
Fans of Geoghegan’s WE ARE STILL HERE understand very well, that he’s a filmmaker whose work is very character-driven, thereby getting it labeled as ‘slow-burn horror’, yet with a payoff at the very end. Even if the ending is kind of mystical, bordering on the head-scratching for some viewers. Myself, I couldn’t be happier, since I enjoy watching great actors do their thing. Besides Buzzington in the hunting party that pursues the fleeing renegades, there’s Capt. Holt’s son, Myles (IAN COLLETTI of PREACHER), grizzled tracker Sherwood Beal, (ROBERT LONGSTREET of I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE), dandyish North American Indian translator Yancy (NOAH SEGAN of DEADGIRL, STARRY EYES and STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI), Corporal Charles Hawkes, who is the group leader until circumstances dictate otherwise, (JACK GWALTNEY of LIMITLESS, DAMAGES and LAW AND ORDER: SVU), and the hulking Private Lachlan Allsop (pro wrestler JON HUBER). Everyone brings something unique to the table, with Segan providing what little comedy relief there is, (he reminds me of a lower-key version of Richard Dreyfuss playing Matt Hooper in JAWS). But it’s Buzzington and Horn who stand out most of all: him for somehow managing to imbue even a nasty, psychotic, self-avowed racist like Holt with some small shreds of humanity, and her for skillfully underplaying a role that a lesser actor might have handled with a lot of wild-eyed screaming and gesticulating.
Admittedly, MOHAWK is a brave script to tackle these days, and not just for its sentiments and sensibilities regarding how wronged Native Americans have been. In co-writing it with GRADY HENDRIX and in the direction, Geoghegan aims for and hits his marks with accuracy when it comes to both developing the characters and the situations they either find themselves in, or place themselves in. Of note are the various gun battles waged with period-accurate weaponry: flintlocks and pistols (the kind the Founding Fathers were referring to when they drafted the Second Amendment.) The authenticity even extends beyond the costumes and settings, to the actual dialect spoken by Wentahawi, Oak, Calvin and Joshua.
And this is an appropriate time to give another standing ovation to the talented gang at ODDTOPSY effects, led by the gifted MARCUS KOCH. The teeth-grindingly violent practical effects here are a lot less extreme than the triumphant ookiness they just scored in Stephen Biro’s SONG OF SOLOMON, but if you need to see reasons why Oddtopsy stays so busy, MOHAWK will give you plenty.
The same DP from WE ARE STILL HERE, KARIM HUSSAIN, returns to capture the same kind of dark ambience he gave to the snowy, sinister slopes of land in WE ARE STILL HERE, and it works just as well. And WOJCIECH GOLCZEWSKI is back as well, after scoring STILL HERE. The choice of electronic music isn’t an anachronistic one as you might think, since it does bring to mind the acoustic and synthetic elements that were woven together for another memorable score, Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn’s RAVENOUS, which shares a few similarities with MOHAWK in the mise-en-scene sense, but certainly not in context.
If you don’t need a stabbing, car chase, shooting or explosion every two or three minutes to keep your interest piqued, and “historical fiction” tickles your fancy, even if it refers to heinous periods in history that most would rather not discuss or explore, then MOHAWK may definitely hold more than a little interest for you. Even with an ending that some may find ambiguous to a certain degree, (I had no problem with it whatsoever.)
This welcome follow-up to WE ARE STILL HERE gets another big three-and-a-half out of five stars from me. And yes, I am rubbing my hands together in anticipation of Ted Geoghegan’s next outing…