Though putatively adapted from an obscure passage in the Vinland Sagas, the aimless dramatization of Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America seems more informed by low-budget History Channel programs and the proto-metal Norse lore of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” The excessive bloodshed of the hard-rock Viking motif, however, has been swapped for modern-minded bombast; the bulk of the running time is mercilessly devoured by depictions of menial survivalist tasks meant to juxtapose the Arctic-chapped tedium of the conquest’s day-to-day reality against its global significance. Set in 1001 AD at the speculative tail-end of a Scandinavian settlement what is today known as Newfoundland, the film follows two iron-helmeted, thick-whiskered warriors attempting to regroup with the remains of their colony after a skirmish with natives. The duo trail-blaze with clumsy blades, erect temporary wooden shelters, bicker over freshly speared fish in an arcane Greenlandic tongue, and gratuitously defecate over lichen-speckled logs. Like, hardcore, man.
Aside from the low-res video that imposes a gratingly overexposed color palette, Severed Ways suffers most dismally from the lack of a confident voice at the helm that may have provided the storyline’s central journey more historical resonance or, for that matter, much-needed drama. We watch two protagonists wander the woods, desperately in search of some narrative structure but encountering only frail missionaries and feral tribeswomen. And it’s unfortunately with the former group that writer/director/producer/editor/co-star Tony Stone means to derive his primary conflict, unwisely traipsing into the ambiguous historicity of spiritual melee between paganism and Christianity. One of the male leads evokes Odin’s name enough times to facilitate a drinking game, while the other befriends a wandering monk he intended to slaughter and pillage; we learn later, through a tacky, wordless flashback, that this compassion springs from guilt over a family member’s suicide in the aftermath of motherland conversion.
The vital, northwestern strain of Christ’s viral spread in the late first century is given such shadowy treatment that it makes little sense as a plot device (the rift suggested between the two Vikings is perplexingly resolved sans fanfare in the denouement), but it additionally glosses over crucial conundrums in Norse scholarship that could have offered this savage portrait depth. Today the politics of salvation are often reduced to the torturous either/or that Severed Ways insists upon, but much early Christian proselytizing occurred on a chiefly superficial level. Pagan customs were lightly sprinkled with holy water (popular Thor’s hammer pendants were subtly reshaped and referred to as crucifixes), and some missionaries described Jesus as simply another avenging avatar of Odin (the first rule of apologetics: find a common denominator). Isn’t it clear by now that introspective adventure stories set in bygone eras self destruct when they’re dumbed down and the necessary homework is fed to the nearest canine (cf Troy)?
That said, the film will doubtlessly find an audience: There is surely by now a sizable market segment for fans of Vikings trudging against a ubiquity of epic, reverb-laden guitar solos and an admittedly sumptuous geographic backdrop (observant close-ups of indigenous amphibians provide periodic oases of piquancy). They’ll be the ones who suppress nagging questions such as why the “natives” in the film resemble John Ford’s Comanches more closely than Canadian-dwelling Inuits. Or why even the foley artist seems determined to go needlessly punk, crunching twigs and bark undertoe so sonorously it drowns out the scant dialogue. Or why a man enveloped in wilderness is banging his blond locks in time to the grunge on the soundtrack. The rest of us will merely pray that when Ragnarok is nigh, we spy Tony Stone and his Norse dunces along the frontlines of the opposing side.