Hype and all that comes with it is a curious mistress to any fandom. It can take an unknown band in a tiny European country and create a global music phenomenon. It also can help eat the subject of it from the inside out. This is not only a microcosm of the rise of first-wave Norwegian Black Metal, but also the movie Lords of Chaos directed by Jonas Åkerlund (Gunpowder Sky, Vice Media/Insurgent Media, 20th Century Fox, Scott Free Productions). We’ve heard about this movie for so long, that I’m sure that some have very high expectations for this film. The film also has its many detractors as protectors of their genre, and those who never wanted to see this film made. We’re not going to use this review to retell the story we’ve all seen and heard before, but rather rate the merits of this film.
Well here we are and what we have now is a film that is indeed at times captivating as the legends but also rife with issues. First, let’s back up for a minute. There are a few things that you should know about the making of the film. Åkerlund, the one-time Bathory drummer who has the street cred for and for his video and film work in his career. As the film opens over the credits are the words “Based on the truth, and lies”. At the screening in New York City at Alamo Draft House, the director admitted he liked the title more than the contents of the book, fell out of love with the title for a time, before coming around again. This is important to go in knowing that this is many years of events condensed down to a two-plus hour film. Also, for a long time, the film was criticized that the film would be terrible simply for having no licensed classic black metal music in the film. Well, that proved to be untrue since the film was endorsed by Mayhem, Øystein Aarseth’s (Euronymous) family and had full rights to music, both “performed” by the actors and the songs heard in the film. The soundtrack to the film (the one heard, no clue about the OST) yet includes other black metal touchstone bands in the film as well as classic metal from Judas Priest, Dio, and Diamond Head, and strangely a lot of Sigur Ros too.
Starting with narration from Euronymous (Rory Culkin), you get the story of Mayhem from his point of view mainly. From the beginning of the band through his death, we are given the Cliff’s Notes version the story beats. Very early on the personal relationship that would dominate the film are set with Euronymous, and Varg (Emory Cohen) taking center stage, while everyone else in their circle Faust, Metalion, Necrobutcher, Blackthorn, and others were passive voices in their circle of friends. The role of Ann-Marit is played well by Sky Ferreira, but her importance to the story has been debated going back to the book, so the film may give her a larger role to create a conflict/love interest. Per Yngve “Dead” Ohlin’s tragic arc in the film, just like in his life is over pretty quick, but Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer’s son) does a nice job with limited screen time.
Culkin and Cohen chew up a ton of scenery as the master-apprentice, role reversal/power struggle arc of their time together ensures. They have great chemistry with each other and Ferreira. Both leads are neither glorified or vilified for their worst moments. You feel their freedom and elation when they burn down churches. You feel their ire for growing as frienemies become best friends and them actual mortal enemies. One thing that jumped out to me negatively is how concerned with who is a poser and who is true, the one-upping culture of their scenes. As if our scene today needs further reinforcement of this shitty elitism masquerading as taste. This is one of the things that leads to their undoing. The violence of the film, be it suicide, murder, or any other see no punches pulled, impactful and almost feels like it’s happening to you in the moment.
Åkerlund is a masterful visual storyteller. A brilliant genius with a wonderful eye for details, he is able to bring you into a scene or a frame and make you feel like you are experiencing this yourself. There are some mind-blowing shots, recreations of real events and still photos, and other visuals that will stay with the viewer after the film is over. Also worth noting, the entire film was shot in just eighteen days in Budapest and Oslo. Tons of time preparing ahead of time, but the finished film looks like a grand production all the way through.
On the downside, the screenplay by Dennis Magnusson and Åkerlund is not great. I watched the film in a theater for the first time, and several more times after and there were just odd instances of many comedic moments the film did not need. I know some levity is needed when you have a film dealing with murder, Racism, Nazis, bullying, mirthless nihilists, homophobia and more. The film is actually billed as a “comedy, drama, thriller” and I get it; “young adults + metalheads + no self-awareness = laughs. The sure had a lot of beer, sex, drugs, rock and roll too, and an early scene that plays like a Black Metal Heavy Metal Parking Lot, fun. There are a few clichés leaned on hard, from some of the behaviors of the characters, right down to the corny “dead guy narrates the snarky last line of the film” moment. Just ruined the payoff of the ending for me.
Realistically if you live for Mayhem, love Black Metal, and are a die-hard fan of this music, you will almost certainly hate this movie to your very core. But the larger moving going audience won’t be metal fans, and some will find a lot of shock and awe, but also find merit in it as art. Casual music fans (die you poseur scum?) who probably like some black metal influenced bands (Behemoth, Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth) but don’t know the back story, may get sucked in deep, for better or worse.
6 / 10