Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/07/08 14:06:39

"Well, that was unpleasant."
1 stars (Total Crap)

SCREENED AT THE 2008 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: Believe it or not, "Severed Ways" was one of the movies I was initially fairly excited about when the IFFB announced their roster of films. How many Viking movies do you get at the typical independent film festival, after all, and the fact that it wasn't banished to the "After Dark" segment of the program held out hope that it might be pretty good. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a miserable enough experience that I would have happily traded Vikings for the documentary about competitive jump-roping next door if I could have.

The text at the beginning sounds enticing - it sets up the backstory from the Vinland Sagas, telling us of a group of Norsemen who by 1007 AD had made a settlement in what is now Canada sending a further expedition south, only to be beset by "Skraelings" (the Abenaki) and driven back home. Two scouts, Orn (Tony Stone) and Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) were left behind and must survive off the land while they try to make their way back north, with hundreds of miles of wilderness, natives, and Christian missionaries between them and their goal.

I wonder if I might have enjoyed this movie a little more had it appeared at the Underground Film Festival rather than the Independent Film Festival. It would seem to fit there better; Severed Ways is very much a backyard film, which Tony Stone shot in Vermont and at Viking ruins in Newfoundland. Stone does practically everything, writing, directing, producing, and editing as well as starring in the picture. Costumes and props do look like they were made in his basement - probably more true to life than something from an elaborate Hollywood production, but still feeling like stuff they cobbled together out of what was lying around. It also feels a little underpopulated, as homemade movies tend to be.

Still, seeing it in a context where I'm more inclined to be generous would not have made it a good movie. Even discounting the question of what those Catholic missionaries are doing in the New World something like five hundred years too early, Stone makes a lot of decisions that maybe seemed to make sense at the time but don't quite work. The heavy metal soundtrack is a good idea, but actually showing Orn headbanging is weird. The actors speak in Greenlandic, apparently the closest thing going to ancient Norse, but it sounds stilted, and the subtitles are in idiomatic twenty-first century English ("we're toast if we stay here!"), further breaking the spell. The overblown chapter titles don't help, either - the small act of mayhem that follows the proclamation of "Conquest" is laughable.

A lot of that can be overcome, but Stone loses his audience pretty decisively early on. There are certain on-screen images you have to earn, and actual shit coming out of your ass is one of them. There was a palpable wave of revulsion that went through the audience at that, and smaller ones when Orn/Stone killed and dressed chickens and fish on-screen, and as much as you can try to defend that by saying it has documentary value, it just feels gratuitous, and no matter how much merit the rest of the film might have, there's no getting over that the audience just doesn't want any part of it any more.

That sort of thing throws the rest of the movie's faults into greater relief. Severed Ways runs nearly two hours but it's generally a slow, introspective 110 minutes, and the audience feels trapped by a performer who mistakenly thinks that every minute detail of his character's actions is just that fascinating. Stone isn't a good enough actor to pull it off, though, and the way he cavorts on screen makes the film seem like a sustained act of egotism. Which is too bad, because there is material for an interesting film here - the idea of being lost that far from home is powerful, as is Volnard's spiritual growth from encountering the Christian monks.

Maybe Stone is a guy to watch, even if his ambition greatly outstrips his resources and skill right now. Someday after working with and learning from the right people, he could become a decent filmmaker. In the meantime, though, I can't think of any good reason for someone to actually watch this movie.

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