The cartoon show The Critic once did a brief parody of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice where everything looked right—costumes and sets were period—except for Keanu Reeves in the role of Shylock. “Hath not a dude eyes,” Reeve’s Shylock asks, obliviously. “If you prick us, do we not get bummed? If we eat bad guacamole, do we not blow chunks?” I was reminded of this take on Shakespeare several times over the course of Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America, the wildly uneven feature debut from writer/director Tony Stone.
The film, which opens March 13 at the Angelika in New York, builds off of a Norse legend about an epic clash between the indigenous people of North America and the land’s first European conquerors, the Vikings. According to legend, in the year 1007 two Vikings escaped the wrath of the Abenaki (the Norse term for Indian), were stranded in the New World, and tried to survive as long as possible in harsh terrain populated by people who want them dead. Severed Ways picks up this legend at the point when the two Vikings, Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) and Orn (Stone), realize they’re the only Norsemen left alive and their comrades have set sail for home.
Over the course of 109 minutes, Volnard and Orn do their best to elude the Abenkai and survive in the forest. We watch—almost in excruciating amounts of detail—as they cut down trees for shelter, hunt for fish, kill and skin chickens, murder a couple hapless Irish monks (who just happen to also be settled in North America), and ultimately die at the mercy of their harsh new environment.
Severed Ways was shot on digital video in the forests of Vermont on Stone’s family’s property, and he makes the most of the terrain. He uses the sounds of nature—water, wind, birds, leaf rustles, branch breaks, fire crackles—for a good portion of the soundtrack. And he uses a good directorial eye to compose pretty, sometimes elegant, shots of Volnard and Orn in this environment.
One way he does this is through the use of lens flares and brief washouts. There’s a moment in the second half of the movie where Volnard is cutting down a tree. He’s shot from below and given an epic stature. And as he swings his axe into the tree, the sun, which is otherwise blocked by his body, floods the screen and blinds us with its intensity. Then, as Volnard continues his motions, the sun is again blocked, only to be revealed again a couple seconds later. This blocking-revealing occurs again and again over the course of the shot, which lasts less than 20 seconds. It puts us with Volnard in this forest that is allowing him and his friend to live and survive but that can also take everything away from them in the blink of an eye.
Stone studied at Bard College with, among others, Adolfas Mekas, and it shows in his style. He also owes a debt to the thematic obsessions of Terrence Malick: nature, man in nature, man’s attempt to tame the untamable. Stone is a long way away from being as good or successful as Malick. Still, his approach, coupled with the look and grit of the video format, gives Severed Ways a kind of underground energy.
But that natural beauty and energy that serves Stone so well is betrayed by his writing and his choice to use heavy metal and synthesizer music as an extra-diagetic soundtrack. And that brings us back to that Merchant of Venice parody.
Volnard and Orn look like Vikings—long hair, beards, intimidating helmets, swords and axes, pelts. They also act like Vikings. But once they open their mouths and whenever some piece of shredding guitar music swells on the soundtrack, they cease being Vikings and become mere reenactors fresh from a medieval sword convention or a headbanger’s ball.
At the start of the film, Volnard and Orn sit at the top of a beach considering the death and destruction around them and plotting their next move. They’re framed in a long shot and speak in a Nordic dialect. They sound indistinguishable from one another. One says the other that they need to go into the woods and set up camp because if they stay where they are they’re “toast.” Later, once they’re in camp and dining on a fish Volnard caught, Orn calls the fish “really wicked.” In the second half of the film, one of those doomed Irish monks tells Orn that Orn’s been “ditched.”
No one can say with any degree of certainty how people a thousand years ago talked. But I feel fairly confident that they didn’t speak like metalheads coming out of a Los Angeles KISS show circa 1980. Toast? Wicked? Ditched? By Odin’s beard, anachronism!
Compounding this dialogue problem is Stone’s use of what he calls “frosty metal” by the likes of Judas Priest, Queens of the Stone Age, Dimmu Borgir, and Brian Eno. When the soundtrack is nature sounds, Severed Ways works as a well made, honestly enjoyable, albeit niche, film: well shot, well edited, economical. But when that music starts, we might as well be watching early metal videos on VH1 Classic: everything becomes clichéd and redundant.
Take the scene when Orn discovers he’s being followed by an Irish monk he thought he “ditched” sometime earlier. The scene occurs at a waterfall, with Orn at the bottom and the monk at the top. We see Orn gaze up at the monk, followed by the monk staring back down at Orn, followed by a different angle on Orn, a different angle on the monk, a zoom in on Orn, a zoom in on the monk, and on and on. All of this happens over some of that tasty frosty metal. It’s stilted, nonsensical, and laughable.
Unfortunately, scenes like this are the lasting impression of Severed Ways. There’s a decent, meditative, Malickian-lite film in there about man’s corruption of the land and the land’s corruption of man. It’s a bummer it gets lost in some misguided insistence on turning the movie into a home movie of a bunch of guys playing medieval games.
An edited version of this piece was published at EmanuelLevy.com.