Ted Geoghegan’s swift, slicing thriller Mohawk makes a vigorous case for horror as perhaps the most fitting film genre to capture some truths of American history. Rather than a puffed-up prestige flick or a revisionist Tarantinoid revenge fantasy, Mohawk frames the War of 1812–era harassment of the Mohawk nation by the Americans and British in the terms of an on-the-run action thriller just gore-minded enough to warrant a Fangoria spread. It imagines a quick, fictional incident in a true, decades-long genocide, starkly pitting oppressed versus oppressor while still emphasizing the humanity of each.
Director Geoghegan and his co-screenwriter, horror novelist/critic Grady Hendrix, offer viewers about five minutes of calm over the course of the film’s fleet 90. Mostly, this is effective hunt-or-be-hunted stuff, with two Mohawk — a young woman (Kaniehtiio Horn) and man (Justin Rain) — and a sympathetic Brit (Eamon Farren) harried through the woods by an American militia, despite the Mohawk nation’s neutrality in the larger war. Pursued and pursuers continually get the drop on one another, and Geoghegan (who directed 2015’s haunted-house jewel We Are Still Here) and his micro-budget tech team ace the showdowns, shootouts and spurts of blood.
Better still, the conflict resonates. “My experience, it’s the white man does the scalping,” notes Joshua, that sympathetic Brit, when members of the armed U.S. squad spew out their anti-indigenous invective. Geoghegan and Hendrix — and their cast — invest the leads with inner lives without slowing down or fattening up the film. Horn and Rain play Oak and Calvin Two Rivers as warriors caught between a yearning to fight and the wisdom of caution. How best to protect their tribe, family and each other? They’re in love but they also love Joshua, with polyamorous openness, a cross-cultural three-way romance that the filmmakers refreshingly never mine for conflict. Even scenes familiar from other films here are treated with a pained thoughtfulness: How many times have you seen a movie hero steal-borrow a stranger’s vehicle to make an urgent escape? That moment’s rarely been as fraught as it is here.
Of course, horror — and history — demand these characters cannot persist unbloodied. Soon, they’re facing off with and then fleeing from a weak-moraled militia band led by Hezekiah (the priceless Ezra Buzzington), a grizzled vision of cruel American practicality. His plan: Catch one of the three and torture the hostage until the other two attempt a rescue and can then be captured, too. His reasoning: His band’s days away from the nearest fort, and once nightfall hits, the woods could teem with Mohawk. Without captives, he’s dead. The nasty thrill of watching the heroes hide and then spring on Hezekiah’s men only proves his point.
Hezekiah’s men are a bearish lot, all grime and whiskers and go-nowhere complaints about the plan. Geoghegan and Hendrix emphasize most of the white men’s ambivalence toward killing — but also their reluctance to disobey orders. They’re discomfited by their bloody work but can’t imagine challenging the racist and nationalistic cant that seems to justify it. Mohawk glances against these ideas rather than dwell upon them, and Hendrix’s script finds time, on the fly, for winning Colonial chatter: “This is bad bread,” growls one soldier, meaning the situation rather than a meal. And when one of the leads does get captured, the creators honor the long tradition of badass one-liners. “Where is your squaw?” Hezekiah asks the man he’s caught, about Oak, who remains at large. “Ain’t you worried about her, bein’ out here in the woods all alone?”
“No,” the captive says. “But you should be.”
By the end, Oak will become a somewhat familiar horror figure, something between Final Girl and Avenging Woman. Horn freshens the characterization; she’s convincing as gutsy action hero but also as conflicted killer. Oak doesn’t relish what she must do, and she seems to realize it won’t change much.
You may be wondering: How is this suspenseful woods-chase horror, exactly? Mohawk takes its time revealing all its generic elements, but at its high point dares to vault toward something grander and more mythic than action-adventure realism. (The finale, while well staged, proves more commonplace than the gasp-inducing moments building to it.) But all along the hunt is touched with terror, with the U.S. soldiers haunted by what might be in the woods, with the sense that anyone — even the heroes — can die at any moment, with one watch-the-shadows jump-scare for the ages, and above all with the vicious pulse of what it might feel like to be living in the way of a young nation still killing its way toward greatness. That’s horror.