By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Kaniehtiio Horn, Ezra Buzzington and Eamon Farren
Directed by Ted Geoghegan
Written by Ted Geoghegan and Grady Hendrix
Dark Sky Films
“The death of one man is a tragedy,” the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is said to have once mused. “The death of millions is a statistic.”
The art and brilliance of Ted Geoghegan’s poignant, thought-provoking MOHAWK is to realign our perspective on a very specific moment in history—namely, the complex interplay of global, native and American interests during the War of 1812 that wreaked largely forgotten havoc on very real individual lives—from a reductive statistical blip on the arc of history to a visceral, affecting human tragedy. By doing so, this bold, decidedly independent film (which had its world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival this past weekend) not only acknowledges and offers proper respect to those who loved and lost, dreamed and suffered, sinned and endured sin, but simultaneously reminds us if we deny the struggles of those who came before us, we risk losing the perspective and hard-won knowledge that can prevent us from breaking our own persistent cycles of devolution and hatred.
MOHAWK opens a couple of years into the war, following a small remnant of desensitized, war-hardened American soldiers on a collision course with members of the Mohawk nation, whose dedication to neutrality has been severely strained by a seemingly endless stream of encroachments on a sovereignty they took for granted only a couple of generations before. Inevitably, violence breaks out, then escalates, fueled on a micro scale in this small section of New York woodland by bitterness over sweeping macro-level conflicts that allow every player, to some degree, to deny the humanity of their adversary.
For a short time, the battle is essentially tit for tat. Blood is shed on both sides. When American officer Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington of FIGHT CLUB and THE HILLS HAVE EYES) suffers one loss too many during a skirmish, however, a switch is flipped and his desire for vengeance against a polyamorous trio comprised of two Mohawk, Oak (actual Mohawk actress Kaniehtiio Horn of THE THEATRE BIZARRE) and Calvin (FEAR THE WALKING DEAD’s Justin Rain), and British Joshua (TWIN PEAKS’ Eamon Farren) who refuse to bow to his whim pushes him to an enraged, racist mindset that can only be described as borderline demonic. “We’re the only monsters left out here,” he snarls at a soldier under his command, who at one point argues they should perhaps retreat rather than accept the consequences of another deadly encounter with the Mohawk or British.
It would be impossible to describe the action in any further detail without unleashing a raft of experience-killing spoilers. Suffice it to say that, once again, it is left to the marginalized people themselves to go to the harrowing extremes necessary to prevent their eradication at the hands of emissaries of the powerful. It’s a quest that takes on increasingly mystical undertones as the film barrels toward its denouement.
MOHAWK’s coherent, relevant and challenging overarching vision is hardly its only strength. The pacing and dialogue, courtesy of Geoghegan and co-scripter/MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM author Grady Hendrix, is always on point. On the acting side, there isn’t a weak or distracting performance here, but the smoldering, almost otherworldly power of Horn’s turn as Oak and the pure venomous malice with which Buzzington imbues Holt elevate the film and its implicit stakes. The score by Wojciech Golczewski both haunts and startles in appropriate measure, and cinematographer Karim Hussain (like the composer, encoring from Geoghegan’s 2015 haunted-house debut WE ARE STILL HERE) brings an immediacy, naturalism and depth to the storytelling that is essential to its success.
While MOHAWK feels, on its surface, far removed aesthetically and narratively from Geoghegan’s excellent and much-celebrated WE ARE STILL HERE, the two films share a lot of connective tissue on a deeper level. The idea of the past as an albatross rearing its ugly head to stymie personal or cultural progress drives both. If WE ARE STILL HERE showed us the sins of the ancestors made manifest in the present, MOHAWK reverses the approach, animating the long-ago conflict we’re still feeling the reverberations of today. The fact that Geoghegan can so convincingly interpret both sides of the coin in the context of such vastly different vehicles speaks to his unique talents as a filmmaker.