“Pathfinder” meets “Gerry” in “Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America,” a striking and virtually wordless story of two Vikings separated from their tribe and left to stumble through the North American wilderness. Blending heavy metal and opera, first-time director Tony Stone unlocks a previously unexplored connection between hand-bangers and Vikings, creating what will seem to some an idyllic meditation on primitive man overwhelmed by his surroundings, and to others, the folly of two guys playing dress-up in the woods. Given Stone’s emphasis on introspection over action, casual audiences are likely to be bored and confused, severely limiting the pic’s prospects.
“Severed Ways” opens with the smoldering remains of a Viking encampment 1,000 years ago. Only two survivors remain, Orn (Stone) and Volnard (Fiore Tedesco), left for dead among the still-breathing corpses — an early warning of the semi-amateur production values to come. Not much for chit-chat (which is just as well, since the Old Norse dialogue is presented in contemporary-sounding subtitles), they are the Jay and Silent Bob of the New World, long-haired stoner types who conclude, “We’re toast if we stay here,” before heading for high land.
In the woods, they use their battle axes to chop down trees and build a makeshift shelter, visiting a nearby creek for some good old-fashioned spear fishing. They catch a salmon, eat the “really killer” meal with bare fingers, then excrete it on camera the following morning, gingerly wiping themselves with fresh-plucked leaves. Stone and Tedesco aren’t so much acting as re-enacting, like a pair of Viking enthusiasts who’ve roped a camera crew into recording their experiment in back-to-basics living.
Though amorphous plot and pacing meander for a good hour, the story begins to take shape when Orn and Volnard stumble across a pair of monks who’ve broken free of their Viking captors and built a makeshift chapel in the woods. Orn kills one monk outright; in an uncharacteristic act of decency, Volnard spares the other (David Perry).
That simple act of compassion introduces a welcome new wrinkle into Stone’s Hobbesian vision of early American life — solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short — suggesting peace might in fact be possible. However, as history tells us, the Vinland settlement was short-lived, which means it’s only a matter of time before the Vikings’ warlike nature proves their undoing.
Orn and Volnard eventually part company, leading to the most compelling chapter: “Separation” (each of the film’s seven segments is introduced in garish red letters, a punk touch in an otherwise spartan film). Cut off from Orn, Volnard reaches out to the surviving monk, bonding with this Christian stranger in a way that seems almost civilized.
Elsewhere in the forest, an Abenaki woman (Noelle Bailey) fixates on Orn from afar, drugging and raping the Viking stranger. Such behavior seems to contradict the natives’ hostility toward these “white beasts,” but fits with Stone’s bohemian fantasy, in which he is both aggressor and innocent — and possibly also the unwitting sire of a new Viking-Abenaki legacy.
If only Stone’s elliptical storytelling style were as lucid as his eye for the environment. From the moment the Vikings step from the beach into the virgin woods, the jerky camerawork settles into steadier hands, allowing auds to appreciate the characters’ majestic surroundings (which include scenes set at L’Anse aux Meadows, an actual 11th-century Viking settlement in Newfoundland).
By shooting in super-widescreen HD, Stone was able to disappear into the wilderness — and his character — with minimal crew. Relying exclusively on natural light, the digital picture sacrifices the finer colors and details that might have appeared on film.