Lords Of Chaos: “Based on truth… lies… and what actually happened”.
Pulling from Michael Moynihan’s and Didrik Søderlind’s 1998 book of the same name, but honing specifically in on Mayhem, Lords Of Chaos isn’t at all a bad film. Now, you’ve probably heard a lot about this movie lately. Not just from what the actors and it’s director have stated in numerous interviews, but to what some of the very people that this film is based on have mentioned as well. Or like how Nikki Sixx wouldn’t allow the use of Motley Crue patches in the film, but whatever. And there’s truly a lot to talk about here. As so much has since been written and said about this specific era of black metal and Norway’s history, both in the book that Lords Of Chaos borrows it’s name from, as well as the 2008 doco, Until the Light Takes Us.
However, this isn’t a documentary, this Vice Films product is a movie first and foremost. A well-acted and seemingly well-researched one, sure, but a movie nonetheless. So go in expecting extra drama, hints of added sensationalism, but also love, thought and concern for the actual subject matter itself. It’s a love-letter to the black metal scene of the time – to all of it’s highs, and all of it’s many lows. Just maybe avoid this one if you’re faint of heart.
Directed by Jonas Åkerlund (Spun, music videos for Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Metallica), and constantly narrated by Rory Culkin (Scream 4, Signs, Richie Rich) as his portrayal of guitarist Øystein Aarseth/Euronymous, this black metal biopic rarely pulls its punches. In fact, it never pulls ’em: it slams them through your face brutally so. At the directing helm, the former drummer of Swedish metal band, Bathory, has tried his hardest to create a real, gritty film that doesn’t skimp on the impact, darkness and violence of it’s source material. It wants to put you right there in the Oslo underground black metal scene from almost three decades ago as best as it possibly can. And it succeeds.
For instance: that rapidly-edited early Mayhem gig with vocalist Per “Dead” Ohlin (played by Jack Kilmer, who absolutely looks the part) in which he cuts himself on-stage, gratuitously spilling blood on eager fans; the intensive crowd energy that feeds off such grim spectacles; the band’s use of a severed pigs head as stage-props, amongst other such creepy matters; and this community’s love of all things extreme – from their mannerisms and tastes, to the opinions espoused. Case firmer in my point: Dead’s ultra-graphic suicide scene also shown during the film’s first half, a particularly uncomfortable scene to watch. Amongst all of the self-harm and the final self-inflicted gun-shot wound to what was one of many dramatic moments for this band’s career, the scene never once cuts away. You just have to sit there and watch this troubled young man end his own life in gruesome fashion.
This approach to not shying away from the horrible things that occurred during this time, and subsequently in the film, follows on throughout Lords Of Chaos. It’s honestly one of it’s biggest strengths! (Side-note: just because awful shit happens in a film doesn’t mean that the film is in of itself bad.) In that regard, Åkerlund does a really solid job of capturing “emotional authenticity”: to give the viewer a reflection of what it felt like to be there in Norway’s capital during the extreme music underground explosion of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Yet this movie isn’t about the music, not exclusively, and it’s also not about the technical nature of running a band or record label. No, it’s about power struggles between friends, flipping off every large organised group around you, enjoying metal, trying to not be a poser, and many different grisly incidents – all set to the backdrop of a cold yet picturesque Norway with brief flashes of fiendish black metal.
Despite the one-hour and 52 minute run-time, Lords Of Chaos rarely ever drags its feet. A lot happens very quickly; it’s a fast-paced film with little time to slow down, even when the more dire and fucked up moments start to land, and hard. Again, Lords Of Chaos isn’t about the actual music, more so the people involved and the feeling of playing this kind of heavy music and being surrounded by it; the thoughts and imagery that it summons up. For better and for worse. There’s also not as much official Mayhem music included as you may think, other than the odd, brief studio moment and that one five-minute gig scene early on.
Plot-wise, it begins with Mayhem forming, being rowdy kids, losing first drummer Manheim, recruiting Dead, followed by his eventual suicide. From there, we meet Varg Vikernes (portrayed by The OA’s and The Place Beyond the Pines‘ Emory Cohen), Euronymous starting Deathlike Silence Productions (who released Mayhem’s ‘Deathcrush‘ and Burzum’s self-titled debut), Varg’s burning of the Fantoft church and other acts of arson, recording 1994’s ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas‘ debut LP with current vocalist Attila Csihar (portrayed by Attila’s own son), and that 1993 Kerrang! feature; it’s all there. If you’ve read the book, poured over the many interviews, or just had a really thorough read over Mayhem’s and Varg’s respective Wikipedia pages, this covers every base you could think of. And it, of course, ends with Varg killing Euronymous. (I’d say “spoiler”, but if you’re reading this, you likely know how this tale ends).
Oh, and they don’t skip that Dead skull-fragment myth either; Culkin’s Euronymous jokingly adding, “We should say we ate a piece of his brain” at one point.
Of course, what starts off as being about the music, soon gets way out of hand. As the very images and aesthetics that the band and their larger music scene built up seep into the abhorrent actions of certain individuals. These were the kinds of people that didn’t know the different between fantasy and reality, and they aren’t heroes; they aren’t the good guys. The film seems to understand this, touching upon the drama and the horror of warring friends (one of whom kills the other come the end), but it also never really disparages things one way or another. Which might be a highly contentious point for some viewers. Then again, most of the actual people from this Norwegian black metal scene from back in the day are quite indifferent about these incidents. If the very people involved don’t seem to care or lose sleep over it, why the should the film adaptation and it’s creators attempt to do so? It’s a tricky one, yes, but just some food for thought.
Lords Of Chaos does contain a charming quality regarding the silliness of black metal; of grown men wanting to be these powerful, evil “lords of Chaos”, as Culkin’s Euronymous outright states early on in a somewhat cringey manner.
At it’s core, the film is rebellious, sometimes dorky, but also quite dark and graphic. It’s about these young, unpredictable men losing themselves to youth, existential darkness and extreme music. Yet the film and it’s real-life events are an interesting example of how some people take what is meant to only be an image in various ways. For some, it’s a matter of promotion; using it to grow their business, provide an added artistic layer, and use it as a platform for their music (Euronymous.) For others, it was an escape from personal issues and melancholia, despite becoming so lost deep within themselves that there was likely never any hope (Dead.) And for a select few, it wasn’t just an image: it was real, and that ends up with some truly horrific actions being under-taken (Varg.) After all, we’re talking about a bunch of young and unstable musicians who gave themselves silly stage names, like “Dead” and “Hellhammer” (AKA Mayhem drummer, Jan Axel Blomberg, played by Anthony De La Torre.)
Even so, there are some oddly funny moments littered throughout the film. The main one that really got me arrives soon after they introduce Varg. In which there’s this great shot of Varg eating crispy corn flakes (because of fucking course he is) whilst wearing corpse paint, sitting in his boxers at a breakfast table in his pristine, white apartment, as bright sun-light floods the room from the window. It’s all very strange, but there’s real wit and self-awareness going on here. Given the plethora of dark stuff that happens – such as unflinching stabbing scenes that let harsh death rattles ring out – that humour is almost a god-send.
There’s also some weird parts, like when the film needs to suddenly further the extreme, neo-Nazi views of Varg. So much so that he suddenly blurts out that all death metal kids should be put in showers like Jewish people and get gassed to death, all while the band stare at him during one particular bar scene. (That’s some horrid, next level musical elitism right there.) Or like when Mayhem state their ethos as a band, where it just sounds super try-hard; much like the “posers”that they claim to hate. (I honestly cannot tell if it’s meant to be ironic or not.) But then there are also some genuinely sweet and touching moments present. Like how when we learn Euronymous truly misses Dead towards the end, while he has his staple long black hair chopped off by his new girlfriend, performed by actor/synth-pop singer, Sky Ferreira.
As such, the film’s tone is a bit all over the place: it jumps from comedy and drama to thriller and musical biopic hastily. It’s oddly or unintentionally funny at times, grisly often, and to say it’s macabre is a given. And the hit or miss writing reflects that; running from serious to melodramatic to campy and funny. Yet one could argue that people themselves aren’t ever just one thing exclusively; humans are not just one “tone”. And this isn’t a fictional story; this is written about real people. Once again, these were some crazy individuals with some really intense belief systems who went to great lengths for their art. That being said, I’ve seen critiques of the film recently for it not offering any real criticism or condemnation against the fascist beliefs and violent actions that certain characters reflect from their real-world counterparts. However, the film also doesn’t hold them up as virtuous nor does it offer any kind of endorsement of these tragic events either.
Pär M. Ekberg’s cinematography is easily one of the films best aspects; there was proper skill put behind the camera into crafting these shots and it’s all well-put-together. Though, the weird, black-and-white psychological montage that Euronymous endures towards the end seems out of place; like Ekberg or Åkerlund are trying a little too hard to be artsy. Especially when there’s a similar, yet shorter and sweeter scene that comes a little later on in the film that portrays the friendships between these people in a much more human way, making the disconnects and losses that much more heart-breaking.
However, the soundtrack is a real winner. Mayhem’s music does feature at certain points across the film, but perhaps most surprisingly, it’s post-rock darlings Sigur Rós that composed the film’s lush, ambient score. So other than the metal albums blasting out from a record player or that live Mayhem show that viciously evokes an actual Mayhem gig, you get these lovely, minimal sounds that underpin central moments of the film: murders, church burnings, relationships forming and failing, and so on. It works well, even if it’s definitely a weird choice of composers than what most people would’ve expected.
Overall, the acting is quite good, with the lead actors all seemingly getting into their respective roles. In a recent interview with Collider, Culkin mentions that his interest was piqued around five years ago when he was sent one of the first scripts. So most of these guys have been invested in some way since the early days of the project, and they’ve now done their best with the script that they were given. Likewise, if their American accents annoy you, you’re probably someone who thinks that you can’t enjoy anime unless it’s the original, non-English dub. Speaking to Rolling Stone, Åkerlund addressed this matter, sating that: “I wanted to make a movie for a big audience – I don’t want to make a Norwegian movie; and I wanted to make sure that I got the best actors. Being limited to Norwegian-speaking actors would have been really hard for me.” And fair enough, honestly.
Look, the key investment here will be how much you personally care about Mayhem, their music, this scene, it’s many controversies, and “True Norwegian Black Metal”. However, it’s a feat that this film is even out. As it’s been in the pipe-line for years! Yet despite the the up-and-downs, it’s finally here; in all of it’s weird, brutal, corpse-paint-wearing self. Something that reminds me of the very band that inspired the film, too. Prior to their 2018 Australian tour, I spoke with Attila , who at one point stated that, despite everything that’s happened to Mayhem, “the band didn’t stop and still, the spirit remained.” Which is true of this film. Years in the making and with so much time and effort put in to only have the process start, that spirit persisted until the end. It’s an accomplishment, really.
Lords Of Chaos is a film about teenage rebellion, devotion, extremism, music, ego, debauchery, indoctrination, religion, and violence. It’s a wild, fucked up movie for what is the wild, fucked up history of one of black metal’s most famous and infamous acts. So, it’s a fitting adaptation. Not a bad watch at all, either. At the very least, this is an interesting film; all based on disturbing if not intriguing subject matter too. It’s a new entry into a movie genre where extreme, underground musical stories like this are so often over-looked. And in any case, Varg himself seems to despise it and the actor portraying him, so that makes me happy.
THIS REVIEW WAS WRITTEN AFTER RECEIVING AN EARLY PREVIEW SCREENING.
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