Mohawk

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Mohawk
"We are plunged straight into the emotional world of characters whose feelings for each other are as pertinent as their survival and combat skills." | Photo: Michael Wigle

It's late in the War of 1812, but it could be any period in history. There's a timelessness about the forest and the stories it has to tell. For a long time, cinema has told those stories from only one perspective, but Ted Geoghegan's latest work looks at things a little differently. The success of the film hinges on the audience's willingness to set aside their trained assumptions about whose side they ought to be on.

The first person we get to know is Joshua (Eamon Farren), an Englishman who has been working with the Mohawk and has adopted some native customs in the process. He's travelling with his girlfriend Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and their boyfriend Calvin (Justin Rain) through what is supposed to be neutral territory, or as close to that as anything got during the conflict, the Mohawk having refused to ally themselves with either faction. But war has a way of getting everywhere. When an unexpected encounter with brutal American officer Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) leads to tragedy, our heroes try desperately to escape, but Holt is bent on vengeance, unwilling to tolerate the killing of any white man by people he considers less than human, and a relentless chase ensues.

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Farren, probably best known for his performance as the violent Richard Horne in Twin Peaks, couldn't be more different here, bringing an emotional range to his character that lets us see beyond the familiar violence of cinema to the horror of what it means for those involved. We are plunged straight into the emotional world of characters whose feelings for each other are as pertinent as their survival and combat skills. As well as making the action more compelling, this communicates something of the trauma and exhaustion facing those caught up in the war more widely, especially the Mohawk, a people already struggling to survive after the impact of smallpox and previous wars. But Geoghegan's best trick is to restructure the narrative halfway through, Hitchcock-style, so that our attention shifts from Joshua to Oak; and it is Horn's equally sensitive yet forceful performance that really gives the film its power.

Switching between the fugitives and their pursuers, we see the forest take its toll on them all. Oak warns that it's a restless place haunted by the souls of the dead. Holt and his men are driven to distraction by how difficult it is to navigate the maze of trees, and gradually begin to perceive or imagine some threat among them too. The officer's increasing obsession with his quarry is par for the course in such tales, but Buzzington delivers it with conviction until, as we approach the final showdown, he seems to have become something primal, shaped inevitably by the same territory he effects to despise. Meanwhile, Oak is undergoing her own transformation, part psychological and part spiritual, drawing on ancient tradition and belief to find the strength she needs to take him on.

Mohawk is painstakingly researched and full of cultural observations that will, inevitably, be lost on many viewers. Geoghegan is not a great believer in providing explanations, so the result is a film that will reveal itself quite differently to different people. At is simplest, it's a taut little actioner, a tale of pursuit and conflict and revenge that speaks for itself. At its broadest, it's an encapsulation of the much wider struggle between different native and foreign factions for control of North America in a period when much of what happened there was spilling over from a different set of conflicts in Europe. The growing darkness as the film goes on seems as much metaphor as actuality, but how far those shadows reach is up to the viewer to discern. The magnificence of Horn's performance makes this compelling viewing regardless.

Reviewed on: 28 Feb 2018
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Two members of the Mohawk people and their British lover are forced to flee into the woods when a group of vicious American renegades turns on them during the war of 1812.


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