Lords of Chaos

A crazy real-life story that’s more Limp Bizkit than black metal

A lot has already been said about infamous Norwegian black metal group, Mayhem. Suicide, murder and church burning were just some of highlights that mark their time together as a band. Given the intensity of the music, it’s no surprise that only a small handful of feature films have attempted to capture the spirit of black metal. Music video guru Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos attempts to do just that by adapting the 1997 non-fiction book of the same name, chronicling the origins of Mayhem and the early years of the 90s black metal scene in Norway.

The tone is more akin to a mockumentary than a traditional style biog. Åkerlund sticks to this throughout, but while undermining their idiocy he also underplays the violence and unsavoury beliefs the band helped to foster. A lot has also been made up, as we are told the story being told is a mixture of truth and lies. Øystein Aarseth, aka Euronymous (Rory Culkin) is the guitarist, founder of Mayhem and inventor of black metal (or so he says). He also acts as the narrator, mockingly recalling the rise and fall of the group.

After their lead singer, who goes by the name Dead (Jack Kilmer), blows his brains out, Euronymous decides it would be a good idea to hang a piece of the shuttered skull around his neck. According to Åkerlund, Euronymous is a middle class boy who turned his angst into an image that spiralled badly out of control. Dead’s suicide is used to promote the band, leading to the start of record label and the opening of a local record store. Outsider Kristian Vikernes, aka Varg (Emory Cohen), joins the group before becoming the driving force behind their inner “dark circle”.

Åkerlund rightfully doesn’t want to give these lunatics any sort of credit, so they are written as buffoons and played as such. As a result nothing feels genuine and there are no real consequences to their actions. Sure, we see some churches burning and body horror-style arm slashing that is lingered on just long enough to make you squirm. Yet little is made of their dark ideology, which was bought into by some more than others, and despite Åkerlund’s attempt to humanise them, we never come close to understanding their motives.

He does make the right choice in regulating the music to the background. Too much black metal would not appeal to the wider audience the film wants to reach and there is only one five minute section of Mayhem shown in action on stage. The sequence is also one of the better moments that plays into Åkerlund’s vast music video experience. The band’s performance is tightly edited and far more intense than anything else in the 110 minute runtime. Mid-way through the performance, Dead slices into his arms and the front row are bathed in the singer’s blood while the rest of Mayhem thunder on behind him. 

The confused tone of the film makes it hard to read the performances, although it is obvious the cast are not suited to their roles. No-one looks or sounds comfortable with the material and when there are moments of drama it is awkwardly delivered. Despite working with some of rock and pop’s biggest names over the years, Åkerlund’s history is rooted in black metal which would make him seem the perfect fit for this story. Which is why it’s unfortunate the result is a largely uninteresting mess that never once gets close to showing us anything new or vaguely interesting.

Lords of Chaos opens in UK cinemas on March 29th.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Mar 28, 2019

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