Caught In A War That Is Not Yours: Ted Geoghegan's MOHAWK
I’d argue that it’s hard to find a kid in the United States that grew up not thinking he had some Native American ancestry. I remember so many Kindergarten conversations with my fellow budding Genealogists, “Well my papa told me that we were, like, one-fifteenth Shawnee!” or “My grandma says that her great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother was Choctaw.” I remember not knowing what any of that meant, outside of the few Native American tribe names we had been taught in Texas History classes (what, you mean your state didn’t have its own federally mandated state history classes in Elementary School?) The innocently unwoke 90s, where five and six year olds would prove their native heritage by comparing who had a darker skin tone on their inner forearms. We were dumb wypipo. Even in my own progressive family, tales had been told of our family lineage reaching as far back as a distant great grandmother and those of the first Puritan immigrants to the Americas, despite my face being the poster child of basic white millennial. Were these attachments and desires to connect ourselves to those whose land the United States truly belongs to nothing more than a systemic lie we told ourselves? A way to socially cope with not only what our European ancestors did to Native Americans, but also as a way to try and tie a guilty white identity to something that wasn’t the deadly invader? These are questions we need to come back to in a time where the American Identity that we purport this country to be founded on is being rewritten to embrace ethnocentricity. But it’s hard when the films that attempt to reflect this are mired in hero worship of the white savior (We see you Mel Gibson. We. See. You), and rather than extracting a moment in muddied time we are given a dry “film with a purpose.” What hasn’t been tried? An emotional action film with heavy influences in exploitation cinema written by a wickedly funny novelist. But with Mohawk, now we have.
Mohawk, directed by Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here) and written by acclaimed horror novelist Grady Hendrix (Horrorstor, My Best Friends Exorcism) begins with an opening card setting the scene as New York 1814, a year out from the end of The War of 1812. A British Loyalist, Joshua (Eamon Farren), is attempting to give weapons to the Mohawk people, a neutral tribe, to fight against the Americans. He claims the war is simply a ploy for Americans to seize more of the Mohawk land, while Calvin (Justin Rain), a warrior, pleads that the Americans are scalping Mohawk daily. Leader Wentahawi (Sheri Foster) insists that the Mohawks will simply be used to fight the bloody war being waged by the American and the British. In defiance, Calvin slaughters a group of colonists to push the Mohawks hand, leading Joshua, Calvin, and Oak (the third in this romantic trinity, an intensely fascinating but woefully under-explored relationship) on the run, being pursued by a group of Americans set on enacting their own revenge.
It’s a deadly slow back and forth. The Americans cut the Mohawks, the Mohawks cut the Americans, and again. But what the film does it give us honesty and intention behind difficult action, forcing us to question our own allegiance to these characters as the narrative progressives. Noah Segan, a genre-favorite, is at equal times complicit and sympathetic as the Translator for the Americans. Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington), the clear antagonist of the film, makes you pause and ask yourself “How would you react if your sons were murdered?” Calvin murdered the Americans, but wasn’t he too just a victim of the War? A tool that was used by Generals and Monarchies oceans away just for their own means, no matter how many of his own kind would perish? These larger questions of the machinations of war are at the core of Mohawk, a film that asks who is the victim when you are caught it in a war that you did not start?
The ensemble all put in pitch perfect performances, but the undeniable stand out is Kaniehtiio Horn as Oak. Horn is a Gemini nominated Canadian actress who you might remember if you were one of the 15 people that watched all three seasons of the Netflix Original Hemlock Grove. The understatedness of her performance at first made me wonder if she even had a background in acting before this film. She just seemed so real and lived in that it was refreshing to see in a time when the trained skill of an actor can feel secondary with the prevalence of improvised “non-acting” styles. A few times a year do we get performances with the level of commitment and skill that Horn has here as Oak, and we should relish in it. Oak is easily the strongest female character in a genre movie we’ll possibly see all year. It’s that strong and important.
I don’t believe it’s an intentional choice by the filmmakers, but it’s impossible to watch this movie today and not think of the current debate on guns in the wake of the revolving door of mass shootings we continue to have in “the greatest country in the world”. The fact that the Second Amendment is grossly misinterpreted aside, inalienable rights must be rewritten when the technology has advanced as much as it has for something like the gun Watching the fire fights in this film you must actively rewire your brain to how we typically think of how guns are used. Accuracy and targeting were lofty future thoughts, as was rapid reloading and fire rate. Ironically, at times it feels that guns were safer when they were more dangerous. Within this, Geoghegan and Hendrix lean in to this new rhythm, giving their overt action set pieces room to breathe, adding a tension that is unfamiliar as it is fresh.
In 2018, now more than ever, we need to reflect on our past. But also in 2018, after a full day of the cosmic barrage of awful that this world feels like at times, you just want something to entertain you. Mohawk is the best of both worlds. On one side an uncomfortably close look at the character of those men who gave us these inalienable rights we hold dear, and on the other a brutally slick action-horror mashup that is straight from the world of 42nd St Cinema. I may sound like a broken record but, horror is necessary, now more than ever, to best process the traumas of the world. Ted Geoghegan and Grady Hendrix’s Mohawk is a shining example of that.