Sundance Review: LORDS OF CHAOS Is A Funny And Vicious Black Metal Origin

Knives, arson, and brutal clarity.

You’ve heard the story of musician friends who feed each other’s creativity, and you know the inevitable fallout when the friendship cracks. Less known is the version with multiple murders and churches set ablaze.

The bloody origin of the Norwegian metal band Mayhem has mostly been confined to cult circles. Lords of Chaos puts the tale on a big stage, transforming the early days of “true Norwegian black metal” into an energetically entertaining account of partnership, identity, and betrayal even as it includes all the (very literally) gory details.

Director Jonas Åkerlund (Spun) deftly finds the story’s hooks, not in the music, but in the bonds between players. He approaches the very serious and at times seriously ridiculous story with humor and knowing irony. At the same time he unflinchingly depicts violence that bleakly replicates the darkest horrors in matter-of-fact fashion. Åkerlund doesn’t flinch — viewers almost certainly will. Often.

The liner notes:

  • Rory Culkin is Euronymous, founder of the band Mayhem, whose solid guitar playing is overshadowed by his persuasive personality.
  • Jack Kilmer is Dead, a blonde, angel-faced necrophile who sings in a demonic howl. He has an eye for stagecraft, such as stark black and white corpsepaint.
  • Emory Cohen is Varg Vikernes, a talented multi-instrumentalist with access to money, whose ideology quickly shifts from wanna-be scenester to black metal zealot.

(Note: Portrayals may deviate from reality. Also note: For the sake of those who don’t know the beats of this story I’ve omitted significant details from this review.)

Euronymous and Dead pushed Mayhem forward from sloppy but inspired garage band to underground sensation; then Euronymous and Varg turned the Norwegian black metal scene into a counterculture space where a few disaffected kids could play out power fantasies.

Some of the trappings of black metal are, well, silly. The corpsepaint, the exaggerated poses, the artificial tribalism – all big signs screaming “keep out!” at people who never wanted in to begin with. The movie understands all that absurdity, even as it understands that the music is unusual and captivating and fucking great.

Lords of Chaos also knows how all those elements were important to these friends, and sees how rebellious anti-authority gestures solidified into an identity for a bunch of otherwise typical middle-class kids. It follows that line to the development of a cult of personality around compelling icons of the scene.

Those icons are Euronymous and Varg, whose friendship (the film says) was always based on exploitation, and which quickly rotted into toxic rivalry. As they started to believe some of black metal’s made-up philosophy, they provoked one another, and others in the scene, to increasingly criminal acts.

So when Euronymous makes a stray comment about burning down churches to strike a blow against empathy (a line which is believable from these characters and which the film also understands to be moronic) Varg actually burns down a church. In part because he believes he should, and also because he’s annoyed that Euronymous is all talk. It’s like a Coen Brothers plot with a gnarly metal soundtrack, but this stuff all (mostly) happened.

Åkerlund originally played in Swedish proto-black metal band Bathory, making him uniquely appropriate to tackle the material. He’s empathetic towards Dead, whose incapacitating depression is never taken seriously by Euronymous. The director also has feeling for Euronymous’s desperate self-aggrandizement, but approaches Varg Vikernes with an appropriately wary eye.

Emory Cohen is tremendous as Vikernes. His portrayal hardens from soft poseur to something like a dead-eyed school shooter. Cohen makes Varg’s increasingly extreme actions terrifyingly understandable. The relationship between Varg’s behavior and that of other violent young men isn’t lost, giving the film a layer of relevance – this could be any kids, anywhere.

To that end, Åkerlund and writer Dennis Magnusson script the film entirely in English. Hearing Culkin’s Euronymous sound like a typical suburban American is initially jarring but ultimately a smart choice. It emphasizes the ironic relationship between black metal’s adopted anti-social ideology and its bourgeoisie roots.

Lords of Chaos isn’t a beat-by-beat account of the birth of black metal or a film full of actors miming performances. Most of the soundtrack is incidental. (Mayhem, which is still going strong, refused to license tracks, so the film uses re-recorded stems.) Weirdly, one of the film’s key performance segments was used as a Metallica video a year ago, albeit with far less impact than it has in the finished movie.

The storytelling isn’t uniformly inspired; voiceover is used to tell the story when some beats could be shown. And Lords of Chaos never really knows what to do with Sky Ferreira, who plays one of the few women in the black metal scene. Mostly she’s there to help document the divergent lifestyles of Euronymous and Varg, but as the character feels rootless she’s often out of place.

Yet the consistently excellent team of Culkin, Cohen and Kilmer turn Lords of Chaos into a compulsively watchable jam, even when events turn extraordinarily nasty. As much fun as most of the film is, this isn’t one for the squeamish. Credit also goes to Valter Skarsgård, offering a key assist as the chillingly detached Faust.

Metal is a protective and insular world; black metal even more so, and these figures have almost mythic status in some circles. Yet Lords of Chaos won’t please fans looking for a hagiography. Telling this story with blank reverence would have been easy, but it wouldn’t be right. Clear-eyed appraisal can be the most brutal mode of all; you’d think this crowd would appreciate that.

Out in the cold about the black metal scene that sprung up around these characters? Here’s a playlist featuring a few influential songs and many key Norwegian bands