When I learned that LORDS OF CHAOS had an advance screening at my local theatre, I jumped at the chance to see it. Having been a fan of black metal for years, I couldn’t wait to see what Jonas Åkerlund (SPUN, POLAR) would do with the stories of Varg and Euronymous. He had spent some time as Bathory’s drummer, Bathory being a band that the music genre, “True Norwegian Black Metal”, had grown from, using Bathory as their inspiration. I hoped, too, that they wouldn’t stray too far from what was considered by fans the ‘black metal narrative’.
The ‘black metal narrative’ was a bit contested, as it was, so much so that it bordered on hilarity and lunacy. More than once during the film, I shook my head and smiled to myself. Here we were, in a packed theatre with more than a few audience members sporting their own spikes and chains and battle vests, debating the truth of the events of thirty years ago, in another country. And, whether or not the authors of those events would find it authentic, acceptable or flattering to themselves. If that isn’t the spirit of black metal, I don’t know what is.
There were so many things I loved about LORDS OF CHAOS, that made it a movie I laughed at both in genuine amusement and dramatic irony, with even a jump scare thrown in. Knowing how the movie was going to end didn’t make the ending any less weird for me. I chose to take the casting, a bunch of American actors barely out of their teens, with a grain of salt. Though I had some misgivings about it, to begin with, it quickly became apparent to me that the director intended to seek a more global audience than just Norway with his group of hand-picked American teen actors.
Mayhem is a group fraught with changes to their lineup since the very beginning, but LORDS OF CHAOS focuses on the events that happened in the early 90’s when Euronymous met fellow musician Varg Vikernes.
The movie stars Rory Culkin (SIGNS) as the infamous Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, a teen from Oslo, Norway, determined to shake his boring Norwegian family roots and make “black metal” music, music characterized by its cold, shrieking vocals, and heavy, distorted guitars, with his band Mayhem. Mayhem at this time consists of Euronymous on guitar, Necrobutcher (the bassist), Hellhammer (the drummer), and Dead, the lead singer. Emory Cohen gives a delightfully creepy performance as Varg Vikernes, who goes by “Varg” or “Kristian” for the film. Other periphery characters also round out the cast like photographer Ann-Marit, Euronymous’ girlfriend (Sky Ferreira, BABY DRIVER), Jon “Metalion” Kristiansen, creator of Slayer Magazine, played by Sam Coleman (LEATHERFACE), Bård “Faust” Eithun, (Valter Skarsgård), a fellow employee in Euronymous’ shop, and Snorri “Blackthorn” Ruch, (Wilson Gonzales, THE NIGHTMARE) the roommate and accomplice to Euronymous’ murder with Varg.
Introducing himself as “Kristian” and wearing a Scorpions patch on his denim vest, offering a handshake, Varg doesn’t immediately appear to be a threat to Euronymous’ livelihood and life. Despite the fact that Euronymous is kind of a dweeb and mostly unlikeable, and Varg is a ticking bomb the likes of which he leaves in a church, an uneasy bond forms between the two, and there are a great many conversations in the movie between the two of them that I love. Namely, one of those scenes is the scene shortly after the two first meet. Euronymous offers Varg a bite of his shwarma. Varg politely refuses, saying, “I’m a vegetarian.” Euronymous replies matter-of-factly, “Oh! Like Hitler.” “Exactly like Hitler,” Varg says with a grin, looking very pleased with himself. I wonder if the real Neo-Nazi Varg would be upset to know that Emory Cohen is actually Jewish?
What is really unfair about LORDS OF CHAOS is how good Åkerlund made the church burnings look. I want to acknowledge that it was a complete and utter tragedy that the churches in Norway did burn down. That being said, the burning buildings are sumptuously shot, and the setpieces before the burning are artfully rendered. While the cognitive dissonance is strong in moments like these in the film, this is one of those big moments that made it into the black metal narrative and represented a symbol for all who came across the stories about Norwegian black metal. While the church burnings happened thirty years ago, I think the story of Norwegian black metal still rings true for a lot of youth today who want to rebel.
The romance between Ann-Marit and Euronymous is tender, perhaps in spite of Euronymous having a lot of machismo and “black metal cred” to maintain. All throughout the movie, the romance toes the line that Euronymous has built between his own young adult self and his black metal persona. To some degree, it seemed a bit silly to me, especially since when I’d first discovered the Norwegian black metal genre I’d been so invested in learning more about the music. It had never dawned on me that these were teenage boys, who were interested in girls.
Despite enjoying the movie, there were definitely things about it that kept me reflecting on it. The movie, like Euronymous himself, seemed to toe the line so easily between “a bunch of kids goofing around” and churches burning down, or a teenager stabbing a gay man in a chilling death scene, or a teenager blowing his own head off. I’m concerned that Åkerlund oversimplifies the childishness with which these men make these depraved decisions, but also not sorry to see the comedy-and tragedy-that ensues when he pulls it off.
I’m not questioning Åkerlund’s ability to navigate the source material, because it is tough. Boy, is it ever, if the veracity of the events that happened could actually be confirmed, which they can’t. I think LORDS OF CHAOS does this gracefully and with skill, with good transitions through each chapter of the Mayhem saga. The good news is that Mayhem actually did give permission for their music to be used in the film and for the story to be told. And I’m glad, at the end of the day, because it was a movie that I not only wanted to see myself, but I also wanted my friends to see as well.