Release Date: February 8, 2019
Director: Jonas Åkerlund
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 118 Minutes
Many Westerners may not be familiar with the work of the band Mayhem and fewer still know the crazy, real-life story behind the infamous group that invented the Norwegian Black Metal genre. It seems fitting that controversial director Jonas Akerlund be the one to assume the mantle of telling the musicians’ sordid, horrific story in Lords of Chaos.
The film stars Rory Culkin as Euronymous, guitarist and creator of Mayhem, the darkest, blackest metal band in all of Norway, which brought a new, more sinister sound to Oslo. With all black clothing, theatrical black-and-white face paint and a raging distaste for Christianity, the band quickly gathers a loyal following and begins to grow in popularity.
Its lead singer, Dead, buries his clothes for months at a time so they smell like decomposition when wearing them to shows. As one might suspect, Dead suffers from crippling depression, however, and violently ends his own life in the country cottage that the band was renting while working on its debut album.
Euronymous finds Dead’s body, a grim scene because the singer had slit his wrists and throat, and shot himself in the head. This is the first of several grisly scenes Akerlund portrays, playing out each moment in excruciating real time, never cutting away and forcing the audience to endure every brutal moment.
Euronymous photographs Dead’s corpse, and later uses the image as a cover for an album. He also turns pieces of his skull into a set of necklaces that the band wears to honor their fallen friend, and a rumor forms that Euronymous even ate some of his brains.
This event, along with the formation of their own music label, grows Mayhem’s infamy even more, attracting more followers, including an individual named Christian, or Varg as he prefers to be called. He takes Mayhem’s lyrics as gospel and began ingratiating himself into the group, eventually having his own album produced by their label.
Euronymous begins to resent Varg’s talent and growing popularity and invites him to join the band in order to keep him under control and to take credit for any of his accomplishments. In passing, he mentions that all churches should be burned to the ground, an exclamation that Varg doesn’t soon forget.
Akerlund’s visual style is more akin to his music video work rather than his feature film efforts and presents a stark, cold and colorless Norway, accentuated by grainy handheld work, which adds to the film’s realism. It’s essentially the opposite of Polar, a recently released Netflix movie he also directed, in which the over-stylized visuals were ugly, over saturated and thoroughly uninspired. Lords of Chaos, on the other hand, perfectly compliments the grim subject matter with its visuals, further entrenching us in the darkness of the characters.
Culkin plays the role of Euronymous to perfection, a character who is constantly at odds with the persona he has created for himself. He’s a performer and a businessman, and while he may have a belief system that resembles that of the tortured and angst-ridden rocker he’s playing, we can frequently see the expression on his face turn as he contemplates the malicious influence he has unleashed into the world.
Emory Cohen is the standout as Varg, an upper-class wannabe whose impressionable mind becomes completely corrupted by Euronymous and his gang. In an effort to shed his poser label, he begins burning down churches in the area, cementing himself as the most metal person around, much to the chagrin of Euronymous, beginning their cycle of one-upmanship and resentment toward one another. Cohen exhibits the complexity of Varg, an innocent music fan at first who then is eventually corrupted and heads down a path to become a violent killer.
Having previously seen the 2008 documentary about Mayhem, Until the Light Takes Us, I was familiar with the tragic story of the band, but where Akerlund’s film shines is the conceit that all of this could have been avoided, had those involved not let their egotistical rock personas get the better of them. It’s unapologetic in its criticism of the genre as well as those involved in its creation. In the end, they were just a bunch of troubled guys with an ill-conceived ideology who let the fallacy of their silly music control their actions.
Lords of Chaos is a deeply upsetting film, exacerbated by Akerlund’s hyper-realistic moments of extreme violence, made even more disturbing to think about how this may have actually happened. This is Akerlund’s best film to date, and although a tough watch, it acts as a well-crafted parable to those who may find themselves easily influenced by those around them.