Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos is a hyper-violent rock biopic that provides an intimate (and perhaps revisionist) take on notorious black metal band Mayhem.
Bohemian Rhapsody, this is not. Åkerlund treats the Mayhem saga as less of a rock-n-roll origin story than a true crime tragedy, culminating in the murder of founding guitarist Euronymous by bassist (and white supremacist) Varg Vikernes. The result is a film that’s occasionally messy but always compelling.
The movie’s pacing initially feels haphazard, with scenes flowing into each other with no real sense of tension or temporal progress (then again, perhaps the early days of the band did feel like a whirlwind). Some of these moments threaten to cross the line into comedy, with Euronymous’s voiceovers occasionally giving off ill-advised Malcolm in the Middle vibes. However, the tone abruptly shifts after the suicide of lead singer Per “Dead” Ohlin (recreated in graphic detail).
Ohlin’s death, and Euronymous’s subsequent desecration of the body, is treated as Mayhem’s original sin. The band’s notoriety spikes in the aftermath, laying the groundwork for Euronymous to create a mini-metal empire, founding an indie label and opening a record store that becomes a hub for the black metal scene. (The business is funded by his parents, who hilariously send a flower arrangement to the grand opening).
It’s at this point where the film’s off-putting mix of black comedy and nihilistic drama begins to gel.
After bassist Necrobutcher quits the band in disgust, Euronymous takes his eventual murderer under his wing. The film sets the two up as foils and rivals from the beginning – Euronymous a troubled showman, Varg a far-right psychopath who goads him into increasingly extreme behaviour.
These guys aren’t charismatic villains by any means. Their criminality is never glamourized, and their bombastic justifications are silly at best, hateful at worst. The film’s drawn-out scenes of ancient churches going up in flames are sickening, as is the homophobic murder committed by another member of the scene. If these guys are the embodiment of evil, Lords of Chaos suggests, then evil is simply pathetic.
Vikernes, in particularly, is rightfully depicted as an irredeemable loser. The movie’s most darkly funny moment is a self-aggrandizing interview in which Varg, surrounded by a carefully curated array of fascist artifacts, boasts about church burnings to a befuddled Norwegian reporter. Actor Emory Cohen hits all the right notes, walking the line between menace and farce as the killer’s attempts at intimidation fall flat.
Lords of Chaos is elevated by the strength of its performances. Rory Culkin, in particular, provides an awards-calibre performance as Euronymous. The script’s characterization of the guitarist as equal parts narcissistic and insecure could have played as inconsistent in the hands of a less competent actor, but Culkin manages to seamlessly integrate the contradictions, adding pathos to scenes that could play as exploitative.
Culkin sets the film’s tone early with his frank and flippant narrations, nailing the self-seriousness of Euronymous’s anti-establishment rants, without losing sight of their absurdity. But he does his best work when he says nothing at all.
I’m referring to the moments when Euronymous is shocked in spite of himself – when his humanity shines through beneath the affected nihilism. You see him fight to conceal the horror on his face as his friends confess to increasingly brazen acts of violence; you watch as he silently compartmentalizes their crimes until he’s ready to embrace and even take credit for them. Culkin shows us that process with barely a word – and often under layers of corpse paint.
The film frequently flashes back to Euronymous’s discovery of Dead’s body, but it’s not until towards the end that Åkerlund lifts the curtain to show Euronymous breaking down in grief. It’s a revelatory moment, and one of the film’s most tragic. Equally harrowing is the brutal depiction of Euronymous’s murder, a scene which has the doomed musician insisting, “I just talk. You know me – I just talk.”
Mayhem’s story is one that every metalhead knows, whether they’ve heard the band or not. Åkerlund’s approach is unconventional in that he conceptualizes the players (particularly Euronymous) as defiant teenagers in over their heads. “Maybe it’s because I have children myself,” he told Revolver in February, “but I get reminded of how extremely young they were.”
I’m not an authority on Mayhem, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of this portrayal. I also can’t shake the feeling that the movie sugar-coats the racist and fascist tendencies within the early black metal scene. But from a dramatic standpoint, this sympathetic approach adds a layer of poignancy to the disturbing events.
In re-writing Mayhem’s rise and fall as an unlikely morality play, Lords of Chaos strikes at the human core of a salacious story. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Title: Lords of Chaos
Director: Jonas Åkerlund
Screenwriter: Jonas Åkerlund / Dennis Magnusson