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by Jay Seaver

"A brilliant bloody mess of a period war story."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Set during the War of 1812, "Mohawk" plays like survival horror where neither the hunted nor hunters have a moral high ground and can change position in a heartbeat. It's a somewhat ambitious way to attack something that is more flat-out action than larger look at war as a concept - a lot of filmmakers will look for the simplest possible through-line that gets from one fight to another in that case, or look for murk - but it makes for a smart, no less thrilling action picture.

During that war, both the Americans and the British sought the allegiance of the Mohawk nation, though as the film opens, they remained steadfastly neutral despite British emissary Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren) being very close to Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn), daughter of a local matriarch, and their lover Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain). The hotheaded Calvin opts to force the issue, attacking an American fort. As a result, the trio are pursued by an American unit commanded by the reasonable Charles Hawkes (Jack Gwaltney) but with Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) agitating for harsher action, aiming to exterminate the party before they can make their way through the woods to a mission and make their case for joining the Brits to the elders.

What ensues is often great, flat-out horror-inspired action, with blood, guts, and plenty of shock as danger frequently leaps out of nowhere. The fighting is often up close and personal, moving at a slightly different pace than many audiences may be used to as characters have to reload after each shot, and writer/director Ted Geoghegan makes good use of how this creates short bursts of offense amid longer moments of vulnerability, along with frequently gruesome deaths that give the characters enough time to register horror at their impending oblivion. There are suspenseful sequences and moments to make one wince, but it never seems to pause to space things out.

It does, of course, although the cast is also very good at building their characters up on the run. That's a major benefit for the primary trio of Kaniehtiio Horn, Eamon Farren, and Justin Rain, whose relationship is settled enough to not require much comment but unusual and complex enough that the audience can read a lot into how they interact. Horn is especially good, with Oak often more capable and leel-headed than her men, never coming close to saying that she's putting up with Joshua because that's what Calvin wants because she's loyal, but Horn can make the idea hang there making Oak stronger rather than weaker. Ezra Buzzington makes Hezekiah Holt a frenzied, monstrous adversary, but the men with him are an interestingly varied group, from Ian Colletti as his son Myles - a chip off the old block but more sneering than sociopathic - to Jonathan Huber (the WWE's Luke Harper) as an amiable giant of a man fighting for his country and who could easily be the protagonist if the perspective shifted a bit.

It's also great-looking - between the blood, the bright colors, and simple, not over-designed costumes, it feels like a no-nonsense throwback to Hammer or AIP, even if it takes a trip to the library to reassure oneself that the costumes are actually period-authentic (though audiences may expect buckskins, the Mohawk had been trading with the French and English for generations by this time). There's also a nifty, unexpectedly synth-heavy score by Wojciech Golczewski that, aside from being effective, keeps the audience from being too invested in any one point of view the way something with drums or pipes might encourage, highlighting that war in general and this war in particular is a bloody, destructive mess.

Geoghegan had made two pretty terrific genre movies now, between this and "We Are Still Here", although this one appears to be a little bit more of a tougher sell than what was basically a well-done ghost story. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

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originally posted: 09/06/17 00:00:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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