If you’re genre-splicing in one movie, the potential is limitless. One eye-catching genre, say a revenge thriller for instance, leaves enough tools on the table to build something memorable for an audience. Now throw in a historical drama, an 80s slasher, a war story and a romance into the pot and SOMETHING has to come from all of that. The only problem is there has to be balance between all of the elements mixing in the movie stew. Otherwise, the audience is subjected to a tug of war between tones and styles that becomes more distracting than the movie itself. Case in point: Mohawk.
It’s in the late in the War of 1812 and Native Americans are caught in the middle of America and Britain’s turf war. A young Mohawk woman (Kaniehtiio Horn) is hiding out in the forest with her two lovers: one native (Justin Rain) and one British soldier (Eamon Farren). The trio end up on the run from a group of American soldiers, led by a sadistic colonel (Ezra Buzzington), his son (Ian Colletti), a one-eyed soldier (Robert Longstreet) and his imposing associate (Jon Huber).
Co-writer/director Ted Geoghegan made his directorial debut in 2015 with the excellent haunted house movie We Are Still Here. Its charm was its simplicity: a stripped-down, 70s throwback horror film that took its time to build suspense and atmosphere. With Mohawk, Geoghegan goes in the opposite direction for an in-your-face, blood-soaked product that wants to keep its audience consistently shaken instead of building up to the thrills. That would be enough on its own, but Geoghegan also wants to make a commentary on the dark side of American history and how its treatment of minorities hasn’t seemed to have changed in 200 years. And on top of that, he wants those elements tied together with the atmosphere of an 80s slasher flick with a synth-laden score and excessive violence.
And that’s the problem with Mohawk, a case of too many ingredients in the broth and no cohesion to the mixture. With the score, the gore, the visible low budget and the occasional zoom-ins on the characters during action scenes, Geoghegan seems like a proud student of 80s slasher classics like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp. The problem is the mood and filmmaking doesn’t gel with the subject matter. The movie takes place in the woods (not a very dynamic set as it looks like an obvious nature preserve) and features scenes of old-timey rifle shootouts and even a hanging. Not the best footage to use a score and filming style more fitting for It Follows or even the recently released The Strangers: Prey at Night. While it’s admirable that the movie was made on such a low budget, Geoghegan has a hard time hiding its cheapness and limitations. There’s nothing very dynamic about Mohawk and it its start-and-stop pacing manifests into boredom. Things improve once the movie slows down and keeps a steady pace in the last 30 of its 91 minutes to take in the carnage of the world around it and bring everything home, but it’s disappointing that this wasn’t the way the movie was going the whole time. It feels like Mohawk wants to bring the fans of A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Revenant together, but it’s like two plugs forced together when they both need different outlets to actually connect.
As far as the cast goes, they seem stuck in the slasher half of the movie. Fortunately it seems like a good slasher to be in, as everyone is more than invested in their respective roles. Horn is a commanding screen presence, more pensive about the violence surrounding her, yet intimidating when she stares down her enemies. To see her be broken down emotionally bit by bit until she’s nothing but bloody rage is compelling enough to see her arc finished. More than I can say for Farren, who looks like a young Barry Pepper and can’t quite take hold of a proper British accent. The much more compelling male co-lead is Buzzington, who was clearly told he was the villain, and turns up the menace every time he’s onscreen. He doesn’t go over the top though, using only his cold stare and a subdued southern accent to strike fear into the hearts of his victims. The main problem is that the cast is divided up into those who were told they were in a drama and those who were told they were in a straight-to-VHS horror movie, so the entire cast doesn’t seem to be on the same page with each other.
Mohawk is a valiant effort of genre-splicing, but it comes out more like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that don’t match forced together and a lot of other pieces missing. While in other cases this might at least offer shocking cases of tonal whiplash or an entertaining mess, Mohawk ends up being disappointing and boring. As admirable as it is for this to be an independent production, perhaps some big studio money could’ve paid for better camera equipment, reshoots and a rewrite. There’s plenty of ideas in Mohawk, chief among them being one hell of a commanding female lead. Perhaps the best lesson to get out of Mohawk is a simple one: less is more.