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Pagan Poetry: Tony Stone's 'Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America'

By Eric Hynes | Indiewire March 12, 2009 at 2:42AM

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
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[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

A chest-thumping, head-pounding, axe-wielding tromp through the wilderness, "Severed Ways" is the unexpected, frankly unsolicited cinematic spawn of Werner Herzog and heavy-metal album cover art. But rather than parody, the film is a sincere valentine to leaden dramatics and brute manliness, a paean for a simpler, sillier, hairier historical moment. Director Tony Stone's stroke of strange genius is to conflate metal culture with its favored pagan iconography, asserting a continuum between unkempt warmongers and sweaty head-bangers. As a Norse duo marooned in the New World, Stone and Fiore Tedesco (irrelevantly named Orn and Volnard) are the Dave Mustaine and James Hetfield of the eleventh century, brooding blonde and brunette archetypes destined to break up, make up and rock hard.

Opening with a long expository scroll about the Vikings' ill-fated North American adventures, the film proceeds with seven numbered chapters (plus an epilogue) given succinct titles like "Stranded," "Conquest," and "Encounters," backed by amped-up guitars and Goth synth. Scouts Orn and Volnard return to the coastline to find slain corpses and themselves abandoned. To hide from the Skraeling (Native Americans) they journey deep into the woods, set up camp, then accost a pair of monks. Volnard gets curious about God (think of George Harrison circa "My Sweet Lord") while Orn gets drugged and molested by a horny Skraeling (groupies!), the Norse equivalents of side projects and solo albums. They get jealous, they get lonely, they axe people in the back, and they search for a way back home.

Though sorely lacking in storytelling fundamentals -- characterization and narrative momentum would help -- "Severed Ways" doesn't want for integrity. The film is literally painstaking, determined to be and show all in its drive to reprise the savage life. Trees are felled, fires are started, chickens are killed and plucked, and in a first-act money shot, shit gets shat. Stone savors all of this activity, striving for a banal poetry indebted to Herzog's stunt existentialism, Michael Mann's expansive color-field brooding, and Terrence Malick's dreamy textures. These visual pretensions are commendable but lack metaphorical heft, and instead underscore the absurdity of shaggily costumed men stalking the Newfoundland landscape.

Yet this slippage is precisely what makes "Severed Ways" such an odd if momentary pleasure. During one chapter-card crescendo (appropriately: "Camp"), Orn stands on a stump with an axe and sword held at his sides, tossing his long blonde hair to a crashing rhythm, shattering periodicity for a timeless sublimity. Though the film is mostly wordless -- the sound design and editing are pretty terrific -- brief, goofily growled patches of dialogue include delightful anachronisms like, "We're toast if we stay here," and "This fish is really killer." "Severed Ways" loses steam when its novelty fades, leaving our blonde and brunette little left to conquer or cobble together, and even the first-rate soundtrack -- featuring songs by Popol Vuh, Burzum, and Brian Eno -- starts lazily repeating.

Yet watching two men dress up and live as Vikings calls to mind more than medieval fantasy and hypermasculine movie tropes. Five hundred years before Europeans next discovered America, "Severed Ways" posits that pagan and puritan roots had already begun to fuse. Self-sustaining and well armed, Stone's Norse heroes embody an overlap among hippies, conservationists, locavores, libertarians, and don't-tread-on-me militancy. Ted Nugent ought to love this film, but so might Woodstock weekenders or culinary extremists -- if they can get past the death metal and defecation.

[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

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