Horrible things have always happened in the woods in horror movies, and “Mohawk” is no exception to the rule. But director Ted Geoghegan (“We Are Still Here”) twists the familiar revenge tropes in his historical thriller, exposing the brutality of racism and the dire future being faced by members of the Mohawk tribe in New York during the War of 1812. Taking cues from “Deliverance” and “I Spit On Your Grave,” “Mohawk” substitutes rape with racism, and puts Native Americans front and center in a revenge tale that doesn’t pull punches.
“Mohawk” sets the stage for conflict in the film’s opening scene, as Joshua (Eamon Farren), a British agent, speaks with members of the Mohawk tribe, warning them that American soldiers are on the move and will be coming for their land. Throughout the war, the tribe has remained neutral — but with the battleground approaching their own backyard, Joshua is hoping to convince the Mohawk people to take up arms for the British. The tribe’s elders aren’t interested, but Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain), disagrees and sneaks into the Americans’ camp that night, burning it to the ground and killing all of the soldiers inside.
Calvin’s actions plunge the tribe into war and bring his own lover, Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) into the center of the conflict. It’s quickly revealed that Oak is in a polyamorous relationship with Calvin and Joshua, and the three band together in the woods with the intention of reaching Oak’s uncle, who is hunting at a nearby mission, to ask for help. In the woods, the three quickly turn from hunters into the hunted, as they run afoul of a group of American militia members, led by the cruel Hezekiah (Ezra Buzzington), who are seeking revenge for the murders Calvin committed.
From here, “Mohawk” turns into a taut cat-and-mouse game, as the three lovers attempt to and fail to evade the militia in the woods. Geoghegan doesn’t hold back on the bloodshed, killing off members of both the militia and Mohawk tribe with equal cruelty and brutality. “Mohawk” offers a very clear commentary on the displacement and genocide of Native Americans, which is apparent through the American militia’s ruthlessness and crude racism. Even after Oak’s pregnancy is revealed, militia members still see her as less than human, and have no qualms about betraying her or trying to kill her. Oak isn’t afforded the delicacy or respect a white woman in her situation would be given. She takes brutal blows from the militia members’ fists, she’s called a “squaw,” and her ingenuity and survival skills are demonized.
In some respects, Oak’s treatment in the film is no different from the plight faced by many Native women today, who are often victims of brutal violence and who disappear at alarming rates with minimal investigation and barely a whisper in the media. No one, save her own people (who are being slaughtered as well), cares about what happens to Oak. While not as overt as “Wind River,” the message is hammered home by Geoghegan’s decision to turn Oak into the proverbial final girl, as she enacts bloody revenge on the Americans, while still showing the bleak reality of her future.
But Native Americans aren’t the only underrepresented community spotlighted by “Mohawk.” Geoghegan also nods to the LGBT community with the polyamorous relationship between Oak, Joshua and Calvin. While it provides an undercurrent for some of the film’s more tragic moments, the relationship is never exploited; instead, it allows viewers to invest more deeply the characters as a single unit. Their love is subtly expressed through acts of devotion and sacrifice, rather than overt and titillating sex scenes.
Still, there’s a lot about “Mohawk” that simply doesn’t work. The film’s low budget is painfully apparent at times, as some of the militia men look as if they wandered into the shot from a Revolutionary War reenactment. And while Horn and Buzzington anchor the film with strong performances, the supporting cast often falter, underplaying what should be some of the film’s more powerful scenes, giving some of the weightier lines a campy feeling. Likewise, some of the film’s grisly scenes are held back by lackluster special effects, with both wounds and blood visibly limited by the film’s budget.
Despite these imperfections, the movie derives an empowering kick for depicting a Native woman rising above impossible odds to defeat some truly awful white men. Oak’s road to revenge is paved with a lot of bloodshed and heartbreak that can be difficult to stomach at times, as the film often feels tipped to favor the sadistic Hezekiah. But in many ways, that’s the point: While Oak might ultimately get her revenge, the Mohawk tribe was still plundered, slaughtered, and nearly erased by colonizers like Hezekiah. That harsh truth should be a lot more difficult to stomach than any of the film’s brutal violence.