The Mohawk tribe of Native Americans have had a bum deal. First they allied with us proud British Red Coats during the Revolutionary War and lost everything when we made a “tactical retreat” back to old Blighty. Second, it must be pretty depressing to have a rich and culturally significant history so often mistaken for a hairstyle preferred by punks (the musical types) and Robert De Niro enthusiasts. That’s like reducing the historical contributions of Australia to mere advancements in barbecue technology. Hopefully Ted Geoghegan’s (We Are Still Here) 2017 low budget horror actioner Mohawk will do the good people some justice.
Before I’m tweeted or letter-bombed or what have you, let’s put one thing to bed right at the top. The popular “mohawk” hair-do isn’t actually Mohawk. It’s actually Pawnee (or so my extensive library of Native American history AKA Google tells me). But that doesn’t stop the badass style from appearing throughout this film. Putting that to one side, there’s a few other things afoot pretty much immediately in the production design too.
First the actors are quite clearly wearing costumes. And I’m not insinuating that they shouldn’t be. This isn’t some stupid play where Daniel Radcliffe get’s his dick out. All actors are gonna have a costume to wear. But in Mohawk they just seem much more…costumey. The Mohawk costumes seem much less lived in or practical and too colourful. Yeah it makes you stand out as a character wearing a red skirt and purple ankle socks but I suspect the producers were aiming for more genuine looking regalia. It looks sort of like some cosplay efforts though thankfully never descends into true LARP levels. Don’t worry about that.
If I was a dick (I am) I could be even more specific (I will do). The main badass Native, Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain – Fear the Walking Dead) has the eponymous (yet incorrect) haircut along with a blacked out face and neck tattoo. It makes him look like a ninja. Yet it’s really cool actually. It’s very individual, almost iconic. I remember reading somewhere that each of the hero squad in Predator has a specific look so that they didn’t just come across as another bunch of faceless soldiers. So you had the one guy with a mini-gun and cowboy hat, another with glasses, another with a grenade launcher etc. Even their camo makeup was specifically designed to individualize each dude. Mohawk, I’m pleased to say, goes to these lengths too, despite a tight budget.
But let’s not get too excited just yet. Calvin Two Rivers may look cool as hell, but he also has a distinctly none-Native American accented voice too. Things get a even sillier when some dude turns up later with steam-punk goggles on. Let’s not get bogged down too much in these details though. This film isn’t some historically accurate epic where the main actors lived in the woods and hunted for their own food. This is a low budget movie which is trying to stand out a bit. And I respect that.
When you’ve got barely any cash to throw around as a filmmaker you can only choose to maybe hire some named actor for a cameo, be real creative with the cinematography, or funnel it all into some element of the production. Specifically effects. Ain’t it great when these films focus on great effects? For all it’s inaccuracies, Mohawk puts it’s money into all the things I like.
Set at the end of the war in 1812, the proud yet secretive Mohawk tribe which lorded over the land north of New York has stalwartly refused to pick a side. However, with the British on the retreat and the Americans killing and maiming everything in their path, it stands to young Brit Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren – Winchester) to try one last time to convince the elders of the tribe to join the battle.
Joshua, the son of a wealthy nobleman, has lived in the country for years and has made firm allies with the young Mohawks Calvin and his girlfriend Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn – Immortals). Calvin and Joshua are now as close as brothers, though the bull-headed young warrior is blissfully ignorant that his friend and Oak are sleeping together behind his back. Don’t worry, it’s a detail that isn’t really explored nor does it have any great impact on the plot.
They agree with Joshua that the Mohawks need to pick a side before the tides of war washes them all way. But the Elders aren’t budging. Oak has the idea to convince her uncle, a respected leader among his people. But he’s deep in the woods, hunting in preparation for the coming winter. Naturally, the other Mohawk don’t trust Joshua, sensing that he only wants them to join the conflict so they can die for the British. Perhaps naively, the young guy believes otherwise. For once, he’s a British dude in a film that isn’t a total bastard.
This sort of thing puts me on edge. I don’t know if was intentional but by making Joshua such a good guy I cynically suspected that he was gonna double-cross everyone. But that’s my peccadillo. Instead, Mohawk very quickly establishes itself as portraying the American colonials as the shitheads, which is very surprising. Now that is kind of par for the course in films like Last of the Mohicans or Dances with Wolves, but in both those films there are some enlightened people who know what they’re doing is wrong. Films of this ilk often use this strategy to inflict feelings of guilt and regret on us Western folk, the bad bastards who stole all this land from the original inhabitants, be it directly or indirectly.
It’s been a common theme throughout my mini Native American season. With the exception of Wind River, the Native people and their way of life is typically shown as being the purer more idealized existence. It’s a life of deep spirituality and community, one that I think is lacking in our current time period. However, they are often a naive people, unwilling or unable to grasps the depths of depravity that our money, land and power hungry Capitalist and technologically advanced mentalities will stoop too. Which is why they always inevitably lose, to the cost of their innocence and our souls.
That’s typically the backdrop to many such films. Hostiles, for example, is about a war-weary soldier who has cut his teeth killing the red skins. His soul blackened with corruption from the war and regret, his redemption only comes when he accepts personal responsibility for his racist motivations. But that doesn’t change what has happened or that the Natives are driven from their lands, persecuted and ultimately treated like shit.
Mohawk is much more direct. Not one of the Americans is redeemable. They’re all either cowards, traitors or murderers. It’s an interesting departure. Refreshing almost. Like enjoying a microwave meal or not getting ripped off at the garage, it comes as a pleasant surprise.
In a desperate and ill-conceived blunder Calvin sets fire to a nearby Colonial regimental encampment, killing a bunch of folk. His thinking is that he’s struck the first blow and that his tribe will be forced to take action. But it’s also sets a vengeful platoon of Americans on the warpath looking for the perpetrator. When they track him down, a tense stand off between the soldiers and Oak’s parents ensues resulting in the elderly pair being killed and the well-meaning American colonel mortally wounded.
It’s here where we start to see where the money got spent. It’s not the action which I’ve gotta confess is a little amateurish. The cinematography of the action and the choreography itself just doesn’t capture the desperate feel of the encounters. I doubt precious time or money was available to perfect this stuff with storyboards, stunt doubles, intensive training camps and the like. More likely they looked at ways of making it look as good as it could do on the day and threw in some questionable cutaways to break up some of the longer sequences during editing.
Fear not though. Where Mohawk lacks for in action sequences it makes up for in physical effects.
The death of the colonel (shot in the neck) is graphic and well executed. There’s no CGI nonsense and it looks the business. To be fair there are a few moments (like when a dude breaks a leg) where we can see the puppet strings, but for the most part this is where Mohawk is strongest. There’s a great scene in the final fight where one character who’d previously had their hand impaled with a knife has the appendage literally ripped in half like a torn piece of paper. It had me squirming in my seat.
That’s not to say Mohawk is a gore fest. Quite the contrary. It keeps things like that low key until absolutely necessary. Then it goes from 0 to a 100 in a blink of an eye. It sort of reminded me of Brawl in Cell Block 99 with the use of prosthetics and squibs, with only the occasional moment of action punctuated by intense and brief ultra violence. There’s no glorious battle sequences here. They’re all painful and dangerous.
The dying colonel is put out of his misery by the treacherous and insane Captain Holt (Ezra Buzzington – Fight Club) and he commands his men to push on. All of them kind of want to return back to the fort. It’s Mohawk land and legend has it the natives eat the flesh of their victims. You don’t want to fuck about out here. Holt is mental though and figures if Oak, Joshua and Calvin are put down, the rest of the clan will never know what happened and won’t join the war. So the hunt begins.
In films like this I always hope that the Natives are supernatural-like hunting badasses like John Rambo, who’d take down the ill-equipped and out-of-their-depth soldiers one by one. But it’s sadly not like that. That’s the film I wanted and I’ll admit to being disappointed with Mohawk being much more akin to Valhalla Rising than First Blood.
Where Valhalla Rising was much more captivating to look at, Mohawk at least has more going on. The soldiers keep hunting the trio with each side taking bitter losses. It becomes a case of them both going too far to ever think about turning back.
Things become a bit trippy about two thirds of the way through. This again made me think of Valhalla Rising (as did Oak’s really atmospheric dream sequences). I’m a very literal person. I don’t look too deeply into things, so part of the ending was probably lost on me. I just didn’t “get it”. Having thought long and hard about it, I still can’t grasp why a certain something happens the way it does. Akin to American Psycho, the ending is not definitive. It’s like going to a restaurant and not having dessert. It just isn’t a satisfying conclusion.
Look, for a low budget movie Mohawk succeeds where it can. There are no real “sets”, the costumes are a bit ropey, and some of the acting is low end. However it’s strong in enough of the right places to keep you engaged. The leads are all good, especially Horn as Oak and Buzzington as Holt. Horn really lends a deep intensity to the role. Naturally as a Native Mohawk in reality she has a certain look you’d expect. But it’s the voice and the efficiency of her movement that is striking. As the film ends she looks particularly badass.
Buzzington just chews up everything as Holt. It’s clear he’s insane, but his performance runs the spectrum from maniacal, to pitiable to the clearly mental. He’s a fitting foil to Oak and Joshua. Some of his decisions are questionable (not as a bad guy, but from a suspension of disbelief standpoint) but he works well with what he has. Equally, his gang are all really individualized and identifiable. Like I mentioned before about the Calvin Two Rivers, all of the American’s have a distinctive look and each has their moments to shine. Not being a current WWE fan, I didn’t notice the significance of the appearance of Luke Harper as the bearded private Allsop. But hey, that might be significant to some of you guys out there in the WWE multiverse.
One element I’ve not mentioned yet is the music. Scored by a bloke called Wojciech Golczewski, it’s not an overtly Native or period sounding soundtrack. It’s lot of synth and bassy electronica, offering a mix of Tron, John Carpenter and retro elements. Yet it’s deeply atmospheric, almost otherworldly and just works. It took balls to go in this direction and not settle for something predictable (like in Windtalkers). And coupled with a really creative sound design it’s another great highlight that Mohawk has to offer.
Okay so Mohawk didn’t blow my hair back. I’m too selective and critical for such an ambitious period piece to pull the wool over my eyes. But hell, I still enjoyed it. It shows immeasurable promise and while in parts potentially low ball, it has enough going for it to hold your attention. It occupies a different seat in my round table of Native movies. It focuses so much less on the negative, guilt-ridden history of a once proud people, and instead zeroes in on a very specific and personal story.
This is not trying to be a grand epic or Kevin Costner-super sized mega movie. But it is trying to keep you entertained. It’s much closer to Apocalypto than Dances with Wolves in that sense. And while it can’t muster the continued tension or frenetic pace of Mel Gibson’s New World chase movie, it does at least offer us something a little different. Get it watched.