DVD REVIEW If a Viking takes a shit in the woods, will anyone care? I asked myself this after watching Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America, an admirable if somewhat aimless and altogether odd duck of an independent film. Believe me, I wanted to love this movie more. The press release couldn't have made it sound any cooler: Vikings lost in the New World in 1007! A black metal soundtrack! They terrorize Irish monks! It's in Old Norse! Duuuuuude!
All those elements do come into play in this shoestring historic epic, but Severed Ways ultimately becomes as directionless as its stranded protagonists. At the very least, director Tony Stone, who also wrote, edited, and stars in the production, deserves credit for his dogged persistence of vision, even if the final product feels like sitting through the collected outtakes of reenactments from a History Channel documentary.
Based on the real expedition by Thorfinn Karlsefni, an Icelander who planned to settle in the New World, Severed Ways follows errant warriors Orn (Stone) and Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) as they set out into the wilds of North America in hopes of finding others of their kind, having narrowly survived a raid by indigenous peoples (whom they call "skraelings"). Most of the film consists of Orn and Volnard wandering, and then wandering some more. In lieu of a narrative, Stone instead focuses almost obsessively on the crude, dull, details of day-to-day survival: we see the Vikings fell trees and build lean-tos; Orn sloppily beheads and butchers an actual chicken; and, in what has to be the film's biggest WTF moment, we also see him take a gargantuan dump, using nearby foliage as TP.
In its strongest moments, Stone's warts-and-all aesthetic and borderline-vérité commitment to realism evokes Herzog circa Fitzcarraldo (1982) or Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972). Stone's two cinematographers shooting in digital capture some lovely shots of the wild beauty of the Viking's alien surroundings. And the film's unhurried editing and tableau-like shots convey both the uncertainty and monotony of the Vikings' experience as lone strangers in a strange land.
However, these moments are few and far between. And if Stone harbored any loftier intentions of conveying the emotional and spiritual depths of roughing it, they are hamstrung by the film's heavy metal frippery, most notably a hilarious but totally random shot of Orn headbanging and some awkward translations of the Old Norse dialogue ("We're toast if we stay here"). And it is here that Stone's taste in black metal should be questioned. The much-hyped soundtrack is a disappointment, with the majority of the synth-strings heavy ambient metal tracks simply not suiting the film's po-faced tone. Some harder, more buzz-filled and, well, genuinely darker, selections would've been appreciated. A map wouldn't have hurt either.