Lords of Chaos (2018)
Based on Truth and Lies.
Oslo, Norway. The 1980s. A relatively peaceful time in a country known for its pleasant people and sometimes flamboyant traditions. However, not all of its young citizens are content, with one particular music band fuelled by anarchism, delusions of grandeur and an intense desire to become celebrated as dangerous outcasts. They are Mayhem — a group hell-bent on blazing a new path for ‘true Norwegian black metal.’
Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth (Rory Culkin), the moody young founder and lead guitarist, is always on the lookout for the next big thing. When he is forced to search for a new vocalist for his band, he soon finds more than he bargained for in the off-the-wall Swede Per ‘Dead’ Ohlin (Jack Kilmer). As his moniker suggests, when he’s not barking vicious lyrics with Mayhem, Dead is obsessed with all things morbid — sleeping in coffins, hanging cats, and contemplating suicide.
After a gruesome tragedy befalls the group, Euronymous uses it to propel the infamy of Mayhem, eventually forming an exclusive underground unit called the ‘Black Circle,’ literally below Helvete (“Hell”), his heavy metal music record shop. Desperate to prove his worth and enter the exclusive group of self-proclaimed ‘evil,’ straight-edged Kristian Vikernes (Emory Cohen) — a shy, awkward young man — dyes his hair dark and reinvents himself as ‘Varg.’ Slowly finding himself deeply embedded in the saturnine, misanthropic philosophy shared by Euronymous, Varg decides to take action and become the most evil of them all, sending himself, Mayhem and the entire subgenre of Norwegian black metal on a relentless path of inescapable destruction.
‘No way,’ I found myself thinking on more than one occasion as I watched the brutal assault that is Lords of Chaos. And yet, I was familiar with Mayhem’s story, having heard it recounted in music documentaries such as Sam Dunn’s excellent and all-encompassing Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005), and the more sharply focused Satan Rides the Media (1998), which hones in on the media’s response to the true events portrayed in Lords of Chaos. The escalation from twisted thoughts to twisted actions — the band’s music, at times, was something of a by-product of their feelings — is truly stranger than fiction type stuff, so much so that I can understand if one were to classify Mayhem’s actions as outrageous rather than ‘hard-core.’ I’d argue, however, that this is in line with the mental state of these incredibly disturbed individuals; it’s even more shocking given that the graphic details on display here are actually quite accurate to the real-life story.
Director and co-writer Jonas Åkerlund, Spun (2002), while mostly known for his celebrated music videos including Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone,’ was once embedded in the black metal scene himself, being a drummer for the Swedish band Bathory. While not directly involved with Mayhem, their infamy shook the community, and when it all became too much, Åkerlund exited, picking up filmmaking instead. It feels pretty clear that this critical angle of where the fun stops and things become deadly serious is where Åkerlund takes aim in Lords of Chaos, the Swedish filmmaker showing sympathy for these subjects, who craved respect and admiration, but quickly spiraled into doing horrible and frankly, stupid things. I was reminded of the quote, ‘If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’
With that in mind, I can understand why some religious groups are clamoring for the film to be banned, concerned that it’s glamorizing violent, destructive behavior and could perhaps also incite copycat arsonists. This echoes the very same controversy around the classic MTV animated show Beavis and Butthead (1993-2011), where conservatives proposed that impressionable young minds would follow the idiotic duo into questionable behavior. Like then, unfortunately, there will always be those who misunderstand the intentions of such works, but I don’t believe the outcomes on display reflect any reward worth striving for, even if the final line of, ‘What the f*ck have you done lately?’ feels like a direct dare to viewers.
Adding to the fires of controversy, it feels rather fitting that hardcore fans of the Norwegian black metal scene are rejecting the film, citing an inaccurate portrayal of Mayhem, spearheaded by (surprise, surprise) the most vocal critic of all — the one and only Varg, who’s been venting his frustrations on YouTube. It’s important to note that Varg has changed his story multiple times since the original incidents and that this very characteristic would inevitably shape the way his (fictionalized) character relates to others in the film. Admittedly, the movie doesn’t paint Varg in a favorable light — he comes off as a recluse, whose mindset seems to be similar to that of an eight year old, eager to fit in, eventually going way over the top to prove himself to his new friends. The thing is, his one-time frenemy and the film’s anti-hero Euronymous, doesn’t really fare any better either. His character is built up around Kiss-like makeup and tough talk, developing a ‘badass’ type persona to influence others and take credit for whatever he can. Say what you will about the music and its legacy, but as a person, Euronymous is hardly deserving of the title of ‘legend.’
Another key criticism has been on the casting front, chiefly the lack of Norwegian or Swedish talent. In what I thought was a pretty obvious and deliberate choice, American actors (complete with American accents) have been deployed to appeal to a broader audience, something that Åkerlund has confirmed in interviews and agonized over during production. As far as the actual performances are concerned, it can take quite some time to get into the tone of what’s being presented (with a lot of faux machismo and bravado) until the context has been established, the reactions in between all the manliness revealing the ‘true’ characters, even if only in short glances. I would say from this, Emory Cohen, Brooklyn (2015), is probably the hardest to adjust to, whereas Jack Kilmer, Palo Alto (2013), is the most immediately accessible, despite his actions. Rory Culkin, Scream 4 (2011), proved to be somewhere in between but carries the film well in the leading role. Additionally, there’s an authenticity to the cast’s on-screen friendship, as well as their devil-may-care sloppiness.
Metal fans might be surprised at the limited use of black metal music, despite getting the official ‘okay’ from surviving Mayhem members (though Varg has, of course, claimed to the contrary). Much like the accents, this was a deliberate choice by Åkerlund to make the story more appealing to non-metal fans, who may find the hard-core music difficult to engage with, the lack of metal tracks also illustrating how the band moved away from the music itself, and into their heinous acts.
Stemming from this angle are a couple of aspects I found lacking. The first is the absence of exploration of the band members’ intense fascination with such extreme music — the sound, the style, the philosophy. Euronymous espouses a relentlessly cynical outlook, hating on all things light and fluffy and yet, is a hypocrite, clearly finding pleasure in destruction. Within the Black Circle, Euronymous may’ve been the head, and Varg the hand, but was all the hateful rhetoric ever supposed to be actualized? Apparently, Mayhem were never truly Satanists, yet their actions, overall image, and words leaned so heavily into it that it begs the question ‘Why?’ That simple unanswered question bleeds into the personal motivations of the key players, or more specifically, their ultimate end goal, which isn’t ever truly clear. Perhaps it is part of the point, that none of these guys really knew themselves and if events otherwise allowed, there would be no end to the madness — it would just continue till a complete nihilistic end.
If you look at the key facts themselves, they’re portrayed with about as much accuracy as anyone could ascertain, with Åkerlund — who wrote the script with Dennis Magnusson, King of Devil’s Island (2010) — basing the screenplay on the book of the same name by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, who did extensive research into police reports, crime photos and surviving members — hence, the blunt statement that opens the film ‘Based on truth, lies and what actually happened.’ It really does appear that the most negative outcries are from those who demanded a kind of hero worship from this film, and I wonder if the originally intended version by subversive Japanese director Sion Sono, Cold Fish (2010), would’ve intentionally stirred the pot by playing into that. Åkerlund’s take acknowledges the influence of Mayhem but is also unafraid of calling them out on their bullshit.
What has been most fascinating is how positive reactions have read the film as being a dark comedy or even parody, neither of which I agree with. While the film does have its moments of dark humor, mostly from the manner in which the characters attempt to be taken as serious badasses (such as Varg’s somewhat dim-witted attempt at charming a journalist by using dark lighting and Nazi paraphernalia), it is hardly in the vein of parody; anything that could be read in this manner is really just a reflection of the misguided actions made by the real-life band members. The prologue that begins the movie, featuring a droll-sounding Euronymous, who establishes the Norwegian culture they’re about to shake up, certainly has a punk-like smirk about it, but it’s all fun ‘n games till someone slashes their wrists on stage.
At this point, I’d like to address the shockingly realistic violence. The unrelenting attention to detail by special makeup effects designer Dan Martin, The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018), and his team is truly unnerving stuff. Shot with a gritty, almost documentary-like curiosity by cinematographer Pär M. Ekberg, Small Apartments (2012), and exposed with an unblinking eye by editor Rickard Krantz, The Master Plan (2015), Åkerlund makes it easy to feel the brutality and pain, watching life vanish from the victims’ eyes in what feels like an agonizing wait. Here, there are no easy exits. The graphic visuals are sure to get the most hardened types feeling somewhat unsettled. Along with its themes and subject matter, Lords of Chaos’ R rating is well and truly earned.
Lords of Chaos, while certain to draw in metal fans, is likely to continue to split audiences and perhaps ironically, continue to offend the followers of Norwegian black metal specifically — the very audience that it seemed designed for. A dark, vicious portrait of youthful madness, it’s certainly not for everyone but is likely to find an appreciative audience in the morbidly curious and more open-minded metal fans. Those expecting hero-worship of Mayhem need not apply.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie