There's a make or break moment in "Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America" (2007) which is either going to suck you in or send you scrambling for the remote. After two Vikings who are stranded in Newfoundland chop enough wood to build a shelter, Orn (played by writer/director Tony Stone) celebrates by headbanging to some heavy metal on the soundtrack. His long blond hair flutters in a slow motion cloud that obscures his face as he totally rocks out. If Frank Frazetta was a metal-head movie director, he would have filmed this scene.
This moment captures the spirit of "Severed Ways" better than any other. Ancient Vikings meet modern music (and modern digital technology) in a film that's … different. It's certainly a whole world away (or at least a thousand years away) from the American indie formula story about quirky outsiders doing quirky things as they form quirky relationships and learn bittersweet (and quirky!) lessons along the way. As a film critic who has had to sit through far too many of these twee indies, let's just say that in my fantasy movie Orn meets up with the characters from "Juno" or "Sunshine Cleaning," listens intently to their problems, and then cleaves right to the heart of the problem, Viking-style.
I first saw "Severed Ways" at the Philadelphia Film Festival in 2007 and over the last two hours I've thought about this shot a lot. Is it the greatest shot I've seen during that span? No. But there's something special about it. As simple as it is, it's pretty damned audacious of Stone let it all hang out like that. I see it as a "Love me or leave me" (and my movie) declaration. Stone pushes it even further by using idiomatic translations of the (dubbed) Old Norse dialogue: "This fish is killer" and "We're toast!" You're either going to dig this approach or you're not, and he's not trying to trick you into sticking around if you don't accept it.
As the film opens in 1007 A.D., Orn and Volnard (Fiore Todesco) wake up on a beach littered with arrow-riddled corpses. Their expedition has left them for dead in hostile territory and the warriors have two goals on their mind: survival and returning home. Because of this, Stone doesn't launch his Vikings into a full-pitched battler but sets them to the task of chopping wood, and chopping more word, and then chopping a little more wood. Headbanging aside, life wasn't a much fun in those days, and, besides, what else are they supposed to do with those cool axes?
With shelter and food secured (Orn dispatches a chicken with typical efficiency), they turn north but they have to dodge a few obstacles along the way. First are the Skraelings, the Viking term for the Native Americans (in this area, the Abenaki tribe), who we won't meet until later. More unexpectedly they will also have to deal with a few Irish monks, former Viking thralls who escaped their captors and sailed to Newfoundland. When they first encounter the two monks, Orn does what any good Viking does and axes one of them down where he stands. Volnard chases his down too but, for reasons not entirely known to Volnard himself, spares the monk's life. This sets into motion the eventual split between the two Vikings and mirrors the real historical transition from paganism to Christianity. It's not a coincidence that the monk (Sean Dooley) tells Volnard the traditional Middle Age story that inspired Bergman's "The Virgin Spring" when the two secretly meet (so that Orn doesn't jump into kill-mode again.)
That's enough plot summary. "Severed Ways" is certainly a narrative film, but the story's not the most important element. In Tony Stone's words it's an "experience" more than a movie, something that both its critics and boosters would probably agree with. The film lingers on many nature shots, so much so that the woods become a third character. Stone isn't afraid to stop to take some time to just look and listen at some of the beautiful sights. It's a sound strategy that is both facilitated by and complicated by the fact that this Viking "epic" was shot on mini-DV.
With a micro-budget it could never have been show any other way, and the easy maneuverability of the mini-DV camera allows for a lot of experimentation. As you might expect, some of this works wonderfully and some not so much. Stone relies heavily on cross-fades in editing and in this digital format, they sometimes make the film look a little more like Celtic Summer than Viking Thunder. But some other experiments are quite fascinating, particularly the use of a distorted lens (probably achieved by digital manipulation) to represent "Skraeling vision," the perspective of the Abenaki natives. Some very rough handheld shots where it looks like the camera might be attached directly to the actors produce some jerky, gritty footage. A church burning scene plays like a music video and, odd as it may sound, really works.
But the most important part of the "experience," and the defining quality of the movie, is the incredible soundtrack which mixes black metal with the music of Popul Vuh, Brian Eno and others. With those musical choices, the soundtrack's emphasis is on ambience, repeating motifs that create walls or pools of music that you immerse yourself in, a choice that works in concert with the film's visual strategy. Woods, metal, waterfalls, some snow. It's all good.
I don't want to come across a poser. While Popul Vuh is a personal favorite, I had no knowledge of black metal and had never heard of two of the groups featured most prominently on the soundtrack, Burzum and Dimmu Borgir. But even if I could say nothing else good about the movie, I can say that it made me enthusiastic enough to listen to some new music. Burzum's outrageously great ambient metal track "Tomhet" serves as the movie's main theme and is used to such great effect that it makes the film a worthwhile "experience" all by itself. I'm listening to it as I write this review, in fact.
It's rare that I spend this much time talking about a film's soundtrack but "Severed Ways" is, to a large degree, all about the music. This is intentional. According to Stone, the film began to take shape for him as he listened to metal out in the woods with his friends. Metal and Vikings obviously go together well, and eventually he decided to put those visions on film along with the music that started the whole project.
"Severed Ways" exudes a specific and unique vibe, and you're either going to get into it or you're not. Though there are marvelous exceptions every year like 2008's "Ballast" and "Wendy and Lucy," American independent film has largely become a formula, generating a host of festival-friendly quirk fests. Whatever shortcomings this very rough and very strange movie might have, it's encouraging to see an American independent filmmaker willing to explore something a little different. If you're willing to just stop, look and listen, you might have a good time.
And the music kicks ass.
The film is presented in a 2.35:1 widescreen ratio. The mini-DV image is matted to get the widescreen image. For mini-DV, this looks awfully good and the roughness of the image supports the gritty, if not always entirely convincing, look of the film. The transfer is solid overall.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The music is mixed well which is the most important thing. English and Spanish subtitles support the Old Norse and Abenaki dialogue.
In keeping with the spirit of "experience" and "immersion," the features offer viewers the opportunity to just kick back and watch some cool stuff.
"Scenic Ambience" is broken up into the four elements. Each is a loop of film such as a waterfall, a camp fire, etc. that you're just supposed to soak up.
"Slow Burn" is a slow-motion playback of the filming of the movie's church burning scene. It's hard to believe Stone and company didn't blow themselves up.
"Back Home" is a 3-minute reel of footage shot at L'Anse Aux Meadows, the site of a Viking settlement established by Leif Erickson in 1000 A.D. The site serves as the setting for the film's flashback scenes.
Finally, the disc includes two Deleted Scenes (6 min. total) and two trailers dubbed "Axe Trailer" and "Rock Trailer."
"Severed Ways" is a trip. I promise you've never seen anything like it. Like any worthwhile movie it isn't for everyone. But if you want to explore a different corner of the American independent scene, check this one out.
To learn a little bit more about the film, please click through to read the interview I conducted with writer/director/star Tony Stone.