At once a gory tale of supernatural revenge, a low-budget action movie featuring a WWE wrestler, and a fiery historical lesson on the genocide of Native Americans, Mohawk defies easy categorization. Though clearly working on a shoestring budget, director Ted Geoghegan uses his limited resources wisely—did we mention the shockingly grisly practical effects?—and takes advantage of the freedom that comes with working outside of the studio system to engage with a challenging chapter in American history that many don’t want to face at all, let alone in their genre movies. George Romero and Wes Craven would have disagreed with those naysayers, though, and viewers who are looking for something thought-provoking as well as thrilling have come to the right place.
Kaniehtiio Horn, a First Nations Mohawk who grew up on the Kahnawake Reserve, served as both cultural consultant and lead actress on the film. She stars as Oak, the daughter of a Mohawk tribal leader in early 19th-century New York who is girding for a fight with the American troops slowly encroaching on her peoples’ land. (Mohawk is set during the War Of 1812, a conflict that informs the film’s events but remains mostly in the background.) Oak’s mother and the other elders want to remain neutral in the fight between the U.S. and Britain, unswayed by Oak and the argument made by her British lover, Joshua (Eamon Farren), that such a stance is impossible when Mohawk people are being slaughtered. Then Calvin (Justin Rain), a Mohawk warrior and the third member of Oak and Joshua’s polyamorous triad (another politically charged detail Geoghegan swears is historically accurate), impulsively brings the war to them by ambushing a group of American soldiers, starting an avalanche of violence that will bury them all over the course of one fateful day.
The first half of the film is shaggier than the second, spending maybe a little too much time wandering the forest with Oak, Joshua, and Calvin as well as with the Americans, led by the malevolent Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington). Holt’s bitter, hateful drive to exterminate all Mohawks, while expected for a villainous role, never crosses over into cartoon territory, and is given further nuance by the reluctance of his men, including dandy translator Yancy (Noah Segan), baby-faced Myles (Ian Colletti), and gentle giant Lachlan (Jon Huber, a.k.a. the WWE’s Luke Harper), to engage in casual war crimes. Dramatic chops vary among the members of the ensemble cast, but that begins to matter less and less as the body count rises and the film takes an intriguingly ambiguous turn toward the supernatural, crescendoing to a bloody, brutal symbolic reckoning between oppressor and oppressed.
If all this sounds awfully heavy-handed, it isn’t. Mohawk allows its themes to emerge organically from its story, with the passion of its politics rising along with the action. It all displays an impressive command of tone from Geoghegan, who brings back We Are Still Here cinematographer Karim Hussain to shoot the film’s mostly outdoor settings. As in that previous film, a judiciously employed synthesizer score alternates with periods of dramatic silence to maintain a gurgling undercurrent of menace throughout, as the true monster in the story is revealed to be the bloodstained history of America itself. In short, this film is Donald Trump’s worst nightmare: an electrifying action-horror hybrid that also serves as a strong reminder that the United States was never all that great as far as the native people of North America are concerned. That alone is reason enough to see it.