The bizarre true story of a Norwegian black metal group and their shocking rise to fame.
‘Based on truth and lies’ says the opening titles of Lords of Chaos (2018) – a declaration that perfectly sets up the surreal tone of Jonas Åkerlund’s film, and the crazy tale you’re about to see. Bursting onto the screen in a mix of dark humour, screaming music and violent imagery, Åkerlund sticks close to the insane truth, trying to unwrap the story of a Norwegian black metal band called Mayhem who quickly found fame in the early 90s with their music and outrageous shows. But after a tragedy hits the group and they become more determined to promote their self-proclaimed evil image, their stunts reach extreme new heights, while the nihilistic message they’re trying to spread suddenly becomes all too real.
Despite the wild and riotous energy that is felt from the opening frames of Lords, Åkerlund’s film sometimes plays out like a Wikipedia page, his and Dennis Magnusson’s script careful to hit all the right notes in Mayhem’s bizarre tale, but never digging as deep as you’d hope. As such it’s not always the most interesting, even if you’ve never heard of the true story behind the band’s origins and the insane stuff they got up to. Where Åkerlund’s film does succeed though is its portrayal of the group’s gradual descent into truly terrifying anarchy, Åkerlund creating the horrifying sensation of watching a car crash happening in slow motion. However their antics are surprisingly tame in their early days, dividing their time between practising in their parents’ basements, smashing beer bottles, and scaring old people in the street. It is only when their fame starts to rise that things take a turn for the darker, guitarist Øystein Aarseth aka Euronymous (Rory Culkin) keen to promote the chaotic mantra they live by, even if a little blood is being spilled onstage in the process.
The real chaos comes into play with the arrival of Kristian (Emory Cohen) – a superfan of the band and fellow musician who is quickly initiated into their ‘Black Circle’. The rivalry between Euronymous and Kristian, or Varg as he prefers to be called, is felt instantly and becomes the driving force for the more extreme part of the film, Varg constantly calling Euronymous a hypocrite for not carrying out any of the ‘evil’ acts he so often talks about. Crucially for these moments it is Euronymous who is our main viewpoint throughout the film, his narration taking us through Mayhem’s story as he tries to figure out where it all went wrong. Or right, depending on how you look at it. Åkerlund uses Euronymous as the balancing point for the whole narrative, his underlying morality often coming to the surface when he realises they might be taking things too far. While the earlier tragedy the band experience seems to him the perfect opportunity to gain more fans, we later see how distraught he was in this moment, as well as the shame he now feels from exploiting it.
However even he can’t stop Varg’s path of destruction, his decision to take on religion in the most outrageous way possible driving Mayhem down a much darker route than Euronymous ever expected. Åkerlund portrays these scenes with a slight hint of sadness, their acts not really a celebration of all things evil, but instead a misguided way of getting others to notice them. The group mentality that emerges as each of them follow in Varg’s footsteps is fascinating to see, yet it often feels skimmed over later on, especially when some of the band members take their beliefs to extreme heights. It is these later instances that stay with us, Åkerlund capturing them in all their dreadful, violent detail in order to get a true visceral reaction. It makes for incredibly uncomfortable viewing, Åkerlund often playing them out in actual time alongside stomach-churning sound effects that heighten the realism. Yet by making these moments so horribly authentic, Åkerlund ensures he doesn’t glamorise what happened, instead placing us alongside the band members so we understand how deluded they actually were to carry out such atrocities – appalling acts that they saw no problem with committing in the name of anarchy.
In order to give these scenes greater impact, the humour that is scattered throughout is essential, particularly early on in the film. Lulling us into a false sense of security, we almost don’t realise when things are taking a turn for the really shocking until it’s already happened – much like some of the band members when they realise blood is on their hands too, and not just on those who carried out the acts themselves. The cast handle the comedy and the darker stuff equally well, Rory Culkin a fantastic lead who easily draws us in and who often hints at how torn up Euronymous is by what’s happening – a hidden pathos to him as things become more hostile. Yet it is Emory Cohen who is the standout, his portrayal of Varg’s slow descent into madness very real and terrifying to see. Cohen is also part of one of the funniest, almost-too-bizarre-to-be-true scenes in which Varg gives an interview confessing to the crimes they’ve committed, his delusions of grandeur quickly wiped away when he sees how unimpressed the journalist is by him and his story. Although the cast are all exceptional, particularly in little moments like this, it is an unusual choice for the film to be set in Norway, yet to have its cast speak in American accents. While you could argue it adds to the surreal air of Lords, it can’t be denied that it often distracts from the overall narrative. As good as Culkin and Cohen are, having it in the original Norwegian language and with a full Norwegian cast would have certainly made this more effective, and possibly found the film a wider audience.
Åkerlund’s love for black metal is felt throughout Lords of Chaos, the music portrayed with potent vibrancy and the scene itself shown as a way for people to feel part of something special. When things do take a turn for the worse, Åkerlund is careful not to blame the music (which the media are often guilty of doing) but rather the individuals in the band and the horrifying mob mentality that slowly bubbles to the surface. However while the story is intriguing, particularly if you’re not familiar with it, Åkerlund’s way of telling it isn’t as compelling as it should be, making this an enjoyable but forgettable film with a couple of standout scenes.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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