As in his 2015 feature debut “We Are Still Here,” the dead remain ready to furiously re-emerge from their dark resting places in Ted Geoghegan’s “Mohawk,” a period-piece action-horror effort with relevant sociopolitical thoughts on its bloodthirsty mind. Despite clearly working on an indie budget, the writer-director infuses his sophomore feature with equal measures of suspense, outrage and nightmarishness, all via the story of two Native Americans (and their British companion) who find themselves at odds with vengeful American soldiers. Even in a crowded genre marketplace, its blend of gory violence and righteous fury should make it a must-see for those who like their commentary decorated with impaled heads.
There’s actually only one spiked noggin in “Mohawk,” though there’s plenty of other spurting and slashing mayhem to be found in this rugged tale set during the 1812 war between America and Great Britain. Caught in the middle of this conflict is the Mohawk tribe, which wants to remain neutral, much to the dismay of warrior Calvin (Justin Rain), who takes matters into his own hands by slaughtering a group of Americans in their sleep. This, in turn, forces the hand of his comrades Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Joshua (Eamon Farren), the latter an Englishman who — in a narrative development that could have used a bit more fleshing out — is apparently the lover of both Calvin and Oak. Such relationship issues quickly prove secondary to the threat at hand, however, especially once Joshua runs into a troupe of military men intent on getting some payback for Calvin’s crime.
Taking place almost exclusively in a verdant forest where the trees are (per Joshua) “magical” and directions are difficult to ascertain, “Mohawk” efficiently establishes its hunters-versus-hunted dynamic. While its allegiances are unquestionably with Oak, Joshua and Calvin, Geoghegan spends considerable time with their adversaries, who come to be led by Col. Holt (Ezra Buzzington), a vicious man convinced of his superiority over the land’s “savages.” Buzzington’s excellent crazed-eyes performance leaves little doubt he’s the ostensible villain. Yet Geoghegan and co-screenwriter Grady Hendrix’s script — marked by sharp, natural dialogue that never tips into sermonizing — refuses to imagine him in simply one-dimension; instead, as with his companions, it provides him with just enough rationality to make his wickedness all the more unnerving.
After much torture, carnage and murder on both sides, one character opines, “We’re the only monsters left out here” — a cue for “Mohawk,” having already dabbled in dreamy visions of an unholy figure wearing an animal skull for a mask, to dive headfirst into more overt supernatural territory. That segue is executed with aplomb by Geoghegan, who maintains consistent command over his material’s tone even at its trickiest moments. Aided by Wojciech Golczewski’s creepy score of menacing synth tones and growling noises, Karim Hussain’s superb cinematography, and a cast of performers who manage to eschew cartoonishness at just about every turn, the director confidently operates on the edge between grim realism and out-there insanity. In the process, he provides more than a few unforgettable images, the most striking of which is a wide shot of Calvin holding Joshua’s mouth shut as they hide from their adversaries behind a giant tree’s upturned roots.
Geoghegan also employs stillness to disquieting effect, with long stretches of the film playing out to the sounds of feet crunching through forest terrain and wind whistling through the enveloping foliage. Better still, he allows his film’s message about intolerance and oppression to emanate naturally from the action, thereby letting the proceedings gradually transform into a revisionist fantasy of defiance, expulsion and vengeance. Not that those undercurrents will likely matter to many of its fans — they’ll simply be satisfied by its expert array of shattered bones, stabbed torsos and grisly impalements.