If there’s one thing the movies need now more than ever, it’s god damn vikings. Fewer cultures were as bad ass as those guys. First, it was pirates. Now, I really feel like vikings are poised to break through and become the next cinematic goldmine. Hopefully, Tony Stone’s Severed Ways will be instrumental in cracking the ice.
I’m actually at somewhat of a loss to describe in words what I have seen here. On the surface, it’s a pretty interesting twist on this decade’s answer to Dogme 95. I speak of Mumblecore. But Stone’s film breaks with that filmmaking philosophy in nearly every way. Where the Mumblecore movement has this nauseating downtown hipster vibe that stinks up the jernt, Severed Ways winds up playing out more like a cinematic interpretation of a prison-era Burzum album. Everything about it speaks to the same themes expressed by black metal bands like Graveland and Enslaved. It’s a film with all of the scuzzy low-fi energy of something released by Death Like Silence in the early 90’s yet with less than five minutes of dialog manages to express more than most art films could ever possibly hope to.
In 1007, a Viking expedition launched from Greenland lands on the North East coast of The United States. The Vikings immediately meet with the local Abenaki Indians and begin a trade. But when one of the Indians, called Skraeling by the Norse, steals an axe, the Vikings kill him and a vicious battle erupts, ending with the tribes forcing the Vikings back out to sea, leaving behind two scouts in the forest. The scouts discover the aftermath and, left with no choice but to survive on their own, head north in hopes of finding the Vikings where they first settled in what is now Canada. Along the way, they’ll encounter Celtic monks living in the forest and more Indians.
I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into with Severed Ways. It seems, by looking at the package art, that it could be a document about Vikings finding America hundreds of years before but not so. Though, based on historical evidence of Viking settlement, this movie is entirely fictional.
Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America is a deceptively simple movie. At first glance, it’s a very slow moving survival story about two Vikings struggling against the staggering odds set against them, but it is oh-so much more than that. On another level, it’s an exploration of isolation; a sort of cross between The Blair Witch Project, sans any bitching about the map, and the Tom Hanks movie, Castaway, sans volley ball. At other times it examines the clash of philosophies as old Norse culture collides with the Christian invaders of their region and the native people of the New England region prior to it actually being New England. Still, on another level, it’s a portrait of two friends surviving against incredible odds while as lost as they can possibly be. Dynamic doesn’t even begin to cover this movie.
Stone’s film is also one of the most beautifully shot pictures I’ve seen in recent memory. Substantially hindered by budget, Severed Ways frames just about every single shot with as much of the North East’s natural beauty as possible. Severed Ways is also shot entirely with natural light, which often gives it a distinctly video look at times, while flooding the screen with bursts of light at others. Since the entire movie is practically afloat on its own atmosphere, this becomes vital to the process when, say, a pair of Vikings celebrate their conquest of Christian monks by burning their forest chapel. Long haired silhouettes march triumphantly around the blaze while black metal plays as background music. Scenes like this add context to a movie whose promotion often paints the movie’s title in the same style as a Darkthrone logo. Stone has said in interviews that black metal was what he and his small crew were listening to during the production of the movie and it shows, as the beginning of chapter 2 puts one of the pair on a tree stump, sword in hand, while furiously banging his head. A sure anachronism.
The hardest thing about Severed Ways to get past is often its wandering, quiet nature. Much of its 107 minute running time is dedicated to handheld shots of Vikings walking through the forest with not much else happening. For a movie about people from a culture with such a distinctly violent heritage, it keeps its mouth shut, punctuating long passages of reflection with very loud bouts of violence. An adventure epic this is not. Much of the marketing for Severed Ways would like you to think that you’re going to get a bloody adventure romp but as I say above, it’s much more like Stone is interpreting a Burzum or Xasthur album than he is trying to thrill you. This is not about violence or action. It’s about the transformative power of being so far from home, a perspective gained from Stone’s experiences living off the grid in the Vermont wilderness during his childhood for months at a time.
There’s a remarkable amount of authenticity to Severed Ways. Watch the little things. Every shot is deliberate. From the way they pack their equipment in pelts on their backs to the way they prepare the fish they’ve caught to building shelter and even chopping wood. Severed Ways is historical fact filtered through the eye of Frank Frazetta and then passed through the lens of Werner Herzog. It’s a remarkable film that is not for everyone. Stone’s film represents a new wave of indie that drives productions costs down while celebrating creativity and ideas. It is the absolute antithesis of contemporary indie, which many filmmakers use as a gateway to Hollywood rather than a means of maintaining total control. In a time where style over substance is gaining more momentum than ever, it’s nice to find a film that holds art and storytelling above everything else.