The concept of life imitating art is the central theme in Lords of Chaos, the latest film from director Jonas Akerlund, which chronicles the creation of a new heavy metal subgenre and the anarchy and violence that ensues.
Set in Oslo, Norway during the late 80s and early 90s, Lords of Chaos follows Oystein “Euronymous” Aarseth as he and his friends delve deeply into heavy metal culture and play fast and aggressive music like their musical idols. As the teens begin crafting their own sound, which Euronymous calls “True Norwegian Black Metal,” they form the band Mayhem with their new bandmates “Hellhammer” and “Necrobutcher.” However, the lives of these teens change drastically when vocalist Per “Dead” Ohlin joins the group and alters the band’s style and image with his macabre and gruesome ideas.
This first half of the film felt reminiscent of the 90s classic, Kids, with the teen characters reveling in their rebellious, adolescent behavior like drinking and partying. The film shows the wild antics that Mayhem, and primarily Dead, would resort to during their early shows; such as Dead gouging his arms with a knife and broken glass and Euronymous tossing a severed pig’s head into the crowd of maniacal fans. These scenes were tough to watch, with Dead digging into his arm with a hunting knife and spraying blood over the faces of the fans in the front row. As a viewer, I felt guilty knowing that I’m watching a young man mutilate himself under the pretense of artistic expression, when really, it is a sign of his severe depression.
This pattern of self-inflicted injuries is a huge precursor to Dead’s gruesome suicide scene, in which he slashes his arms from wrists to elbows, slits his throat, and shoots himself in the head with a shotgun. This scene particularly difficult to watch, as the performance by Jack Kilmer evokes so many emotions from the viewers, as Kilmer expertly displays Dead’s anguish and despair with each attack upon himself. This was the turning point in Mayhem’s existence, as Euronymous discovers and exploits Dead’s corpse as publicity for the band. This shift in Euronymous’ behavior serves as the transition into the second half of the movie, which follows Mayhem and their new member Varg Vikernes as they intensify their evil image by burning churches across Norway to shock the Christian establishment. This eventually leads to an internal struggle for power within the band between Euronymous and Varg, which results in Varg stabbing Euronymous over thirty times until he died.
Akerlund was presented with a difficult task of taking this infamous era in heavy metal history and condensing it into an easily digestible story. Serving as both the screenwriter and director, it is evident Akerlund cared deeply for the source material and intended to present these characters exactly as they were, flawed and abhorrent. Along with Akerlund, the cast of Rory Culkin, Jack Kilmer, and Emory Cohen were superb in their respective roles. Cohen’s portrayal of Varg was chilling and captivating, as viewers witnessed his descent from a shy, nervous Mayhem fan into a cold, calculating killer who truly believed all the Black Metal propaganda that he spewed.
Unfortunately, the performances couldn’t hide the fact that the story felt jumbled and hastily paced. The film gives the impression that the band materialized overnight and that the events transpired over a short amount of time. The events that spawned the church burnings and subsequent acts of violence occurred over a length of time, which served to intensify the competitions amongst the members of the Black Metal Inner Circle to prove who was more evil and true to their cause. The script itself featured several moments where the dialogue was unintentionally funny and ironic, perhaps due to the stunted emotional depth of the characters or poor writing by Akerlund.
The fact that this is based on a true story is shocking and frightening. These young men involved firmly believed in the misanthropic, nihilistic dogma that they preached amongst themselves and their friends, who called themselves the “Black Metal Inner Circle.” These were just a bunch of spoiled, pissed off kids who took their angst and channeled it into violence and arson, all under the guise of promoting their Black Metal lifestyle and music. Simply put, these young men created a cult for themselves which eventually imploded, leaving behind an infamous legacy and a new subgenre of music. And though Akerlund and his superb cast of actors do their best to show the rise and fall of this era, the pacing of the story and some cringeworthy dialogue prevents this from being a masterpiece of a film. Despite this, Lords of Chaos is still worth watching for those interested in films that feature dark psychology and extreme heavy metal.
Verdict – 3 / 5 – A gruesome, dark glimpse into the origins of Black Metal which falls short of greatness due to poor pacing and bad dialogue.