In art, self-repetition can be a rewarding experience for both the artist and their audience. Take Mohawk, the latest film care of genre enthusiast Ted Geoghegan, last heard from in 2015 when he released We Are Still Here on the world and left it saturated with arterial spray. Side by side, the two films don’t seem to earn much of a comparison: They’re completely furnished by the aesthetics of different genres, the latter a gory haunted house flick in the vein of Lucio Fulci, the former a gory Western slow burn that feels like the grittier grandchild of John Ford’s filmography and a cousin to the works of John McTiernan and Kristian Levring.
They’re also movies about interloping white people shoving their noses where their noses don’t belong before being slaughtered by avenging entities of varying origins. From out of rural New England to the forests of New York during the War of 1812, Geoghegan’s focus is still on revenge.
Mohawk orbits a trio of polyamorous lovers—Joshua (Eamon Farren), a Brit treating with the state’s Mohawk tribe, Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain), a Mohawk warrior, and Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn), daughter of one of the tribe’s leaders, Wentahawi (Sheri Foster)—as they evade a group of American trackers out for their blood. See, Calvin has a surplus of pride and an excess of common sense. Where everyone else prefers avoiding open conflict with their American neighbors, Calvin prefers literally burning everything down, so he sets an American encampment on fire in the middle of the night, leaving no survivors—or so he thinks. The trackers, led by the grizzled and imminently menacing Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington), want their vengeance, in keeping with Mohawk’s overarching theme: It’s a story of the cycle of getting even, with one wronged party seeking to harm those who wronged them in a Mobius strip of violent death. The film is more interested, however, in confronting the inevitable conclusion of that cycle than presenting it with a shrug. The old proverb is right. An eye for an eye does leave the world blind, or in this case devoid of life.
Where Geoghegan angles his focus inward in We Are Still Here, telling a story of a family struggling to recover from unspeakable loss, here he aims it toward extinction-level warfare. He doesn’t sacrifice intimacy in that perspective shift, of course: He couches Mohawk in the tender and genuinely moving love triangle between Joshua, Calvin and Oak, in its closed quarters setting, in Geoghegan’s up-close stylized violence and most of all in the relationships drawn between parents and their children. Oak loses her mother early on. Holt loses his son. Those losses feed vengeful desires while humanizing these characters and validating their humanity. If Holt is a nationalist bastard, he’s still a person. We empathize with him, though we’re never given a reason to forgive him. He represents a particular and sadly relevant kind of evil.
Mohawk’s time and place keep its political implications from striking as too obvious, but suffice to say that for a period movie driven by cultural xenophobia, it’s tragically contemporary. Geoghegan’s restraint paints him as a modest type, an artist who’d rather his viewers suss out their own interpretations of his movies than have meaning jammed down their throats, and Mohawk embodies that philosophy with harsh discipline. You can appreciate its surface pleasures (stomach-churning brutality and its proudly DIY design sensibility), or you can appreciate it in its capacity as a remark on America in 2018. Or both. Come for the carnage, stay for the social introspection.
That dynamic lends itself to a one-of-a-kind experience as Geoghegan explores past ideas anew, and that’s a vote in favor of repetition: Mohawk has similar concerns as We Are Still Here, but it treads new ground and contextualizes those concerns with fresh meaning. It’s a movie with personal stakes, and those stakes have layers within the film and without: Nothing’s as personal as the quest for revenge, and Horn, a native Mohawk actress, gives the narrative an element of honesty by bringing her background into its foreground. (In fact, the movie is peppered with First Nations and American Indian performers. Rain is of Plain Cree descent, while Foster comes from Cherokee ancestry.) Mohawk is exciting on its own merit. Seen as a piece of Geoghegan’s growing filmography, it’s positively thrilling, a great extension of its author’s fascinations. You’ll look forward to where he takes them next.
Director: Ted Geoghegan
Writer: Ted Geoghegan, Grady Hendrix
Starring: Kaniehtiio Horn, Eamon Farren, Justin Rain, Ezra Buzzington, Noah Segan, Jon Huber, Robert Longstreet, Ian Colletti, Sheri Foster
Release Date: March 2, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist,WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.