Writer/director (and former Bathory drummer) Jonas Åkerlund’s new black metal murder dramedy Lords of Chaos has really stuck with this critic since I first saw it two weeks ago. The controversial true crime tale has plenty to say about the lives of fringe musicians, the dangers of toxic masculinity and groupthink, and the tenuous nature of friendships amidst creative partnerships — all wrapped up in an irresistible tragicomic package. Chaos is currently available on demand and in limited theatrical release stateside.
Lords of Chaos, adapted from the 1998 nonfiction book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground from authors Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, unpacks an insane true story that has become legend in extreme metal lore: the church-burning, murder- and suicide-filled misadventures of a group of angry young Norwegian men that nicknamed themselves “The Black Circle.”
Three of the central musical figures in this grisly story number among the early members of “True Norwegian Black Metal” genre pioneers Mayhem. They are ambitious guitarist Øystein Aarseth, a.k.a. “Euronymous” (Rory Culkin), demented bassist Varg Vikernes, a.k.a. “Count Grishnackh” (Emory Cohen), and manic depressive lead singer Per Ohlin, a.k.a. “Dead” (Jack Kilmer). Bård Guldvik Eithun, a.k.a. “Faust” (Valter Skarsgård), drummer for another local black metal act, Emperor, also plays a key role in the escalation of the havoc these disaffected miscreants wreak on their placid Scandinavian environs.
The plot hews pretty faithfully to the key events of the Mayhem saga. We first observe the band’s origins as a primitive angsty adolescent concoction in the basement of the comfortable suburban home owned by Euronymous’ parents in 1987. The band next develops into something uniquely macabre and outre when Swedish expat Dead joins their ranks. Then, with funds from his folks, Euronymous opens a metal record shop in Oslo called Helvete, founds the small metal label Deathlike Silence Productions, and ramps up his Satanist, anti-Christian rhetoric among his friends. The story’s fascinating core partnership, between Euronymous and his gawky protege Varg, takes root here. Euronymous signs the loner Varg’s one-man black metal band, Burzum, to Deathlike Silence. As their bond deepens, Euronymous enlists Varg to join Mayhem on bass.
To earn his stripes, Varg quickly starts lapping his hero in extremeness. Soon, Varg has commissioned Euronymous and another buddy to burn ancient Norwegian churches. The “Black Circle” begins to dabble dangerously in a bizarre mashup of paganism, Nazism and Satanism that is at once fascinatingly stupid and comically evil. This mish-mosh of guiding principles that is equal parts Tolkien, Hitler and LaVey suffers a hilarious and wholly deserved tweaking by a newspaper journalist when Varg arrogantly blabs about the church destruction in a naked publicity grab.
Is the collective’s malevolent rhetoric a PR stunt designed to shock or something more sinister? Lords of Chaos positions Euronymous and Varg on opposing ends of that question. Things end tragically as tempers fray during the (very) troubled creation of Mayhem’s seminal 1994 album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. When Euronymous warns us in the movie’s cheerier early scenes that “[t]his will not end well,” he means it.
During this final era, Euronymous begins a healthy, relatively normal relationship with scene photographer Ann-Marit (Sky Ferreira). Even though Åkerlund and co-writer Dennis Magnusson acknowledge inventing the Ann-Marit character to humanize Euronymous, her basic level-headedness effectively secures our emotional allegiance to Ann-Marit and Euronymous (sorry, Varg). We’re rooting for these two crazy kids, darn it. Her presence and essential sanity throws the escalating nuttiness of Mayhem and their compatriots into sharp relief, without feeling like a cheap plot device. We want Ann-Marit to redeem Euronymous’ rougher edges.
The film takes subtle steps to communicate that most of the figures involved in these dirty deeds hailed from respectable middle-class homes with supportive and involved families. Euronymous has a tender, playful relationship with his little sister, who isn’t afraid to let him know when Mayhem’s music isn’t up to her standards. The fringe musicians of – Åkerlund conceded in a recent interview with Ultimate Guitar that the band, who refused to tour during much of the time covered in the film, “probably” did not turn much of a profit. Their antics and the accompanying press certainly made them infamous, but ultimately these were musicians working in an incredibly niche, underground market.
Åkerlund doesn’t ruminate too ponderously on what caused the headline-grabbing crimes committed in the name of “The Black Circle.” It does loosely establish a general suburban malaise among the young, male members at the heart of the movement, but that’s as far as the editorializing goes. By leaving this causal element a bit ambiguous, Åkerlund and his collaborators make the mystery all that more enticing.
Lords of Chaos is not without flaw. The flick occasionally leans too heavily on an obvious expository Euronymous narration. Åkerlund too often uses random sensationalistic music video flourishes to accent third act scenes that would be more impactful without them. The screenplay and Culkin’s casting have sanitized Euronymous into a more sympathetic figure than he actually was, in the interest of a more conveniently palatable story arc.
Overall, Lords of Chaos still stands as one heck of a viewing experience, especially in a crowded theater surrounded by impressionable youths. Does it help to be a metalhead and a gore hound to appreciate this movie? Well, it doesn’t hurt. Pitch-black in tone, the movie nevertheless takes pains to apply liberal doses of humor — practically equal parts gallows and This Is Spinal Tap — into the proceedings. Not a journey for the faint of heart or stomach, Chaos definitely doesn’t skimp on the violence. It feels like Åkerlund and his editor Richard Krantz take pains to show every single knife impact in the three big deaths with an uncomfortable level of immersion. Åkerlund also opts to explore the gang’s experiments with cannibalism and animal cruelty with measured thoroughness that pushes the boundaries of his film’s R rating. Chaos adeptly mixes the comedy and drama before taking a permanent turn for the tragic in its closing moments. Seek it out, if you dare.