Jonas Åkerlund’s visual style has been built throughout the years across a wide variety of music videos and live musical performances. Whether it’s the kinetic and frantic energy of The Prodigy or prowess of Madonna, the self-contained chunks of his filmography offer slices of visual nourishment that are difficult to translate to film. This is partly the biggest flaw of Lords of Chaos, his latest feature effort, which details the behind the scenes troubles of Norwegian black metal band Mayhem and the events that lead up to the murder of its cofounder Euronymous (Rory Culkin – Mean Creek).
Told from his shallow perspective as a self-proclaimed satanist and enemy of peace, Lords of Chaos juggles between a strange mixture of tones across its first half hour. For those unaware of the ghastly details behind the scenes, elements of the film’s dark humour (thanks to Culkin’s dry narration) might come across as tongue in cheek, maybe even parody. It’s a testament to Culkin that he never loses strength as a young man who, essentially, begins to believe the various lies he’s been sprouting in order to attain a following in the music industry. Mayhem soon becomes an underground hit in Norway, and the band are ushered into a lifestyle of violence, substance-abuse and tyranny that tends to blend in with every other type of film in this style tends to portray. This isn’t a knock against the band’s work at all, but it takes a while for the film to finally kick into gear and justify its own existence beyond just recapping generic events that happened amidst the band’s inception.
The first positive comes in the form of Dead (Jack Kilmer) – the band’s first vocalist who, just like his name suggests, is obsessed with the deceased. He cuts himself during live performances, tosses severed pig heads into the crowd as he screeches into the microphone and huffs the scent of a dead bird before going on stage. Kilmer’s Dead is the living embodiment of everything Euronymous claims to be, and it’s a role that lets the actor loose. Åkerlund’s depiction of violence is unnecessarily graphic and intense, but it’s shot with the same level of humanity as everything else. Throughout the first stage in the band’s career, Dead is the main draw, and as he slices himself up we reel back in the unpleasantness and dirty nature of how messy suicide can be, even when it’s done with a whiff of relief. And whilst it sadly rids the film of its most compelling character it allows Culkin to step up and hold the weight of the rest of the film on his makeup-smeared shoulders.
The elitism of the world Euronymous builds punches back, and soon he’s joining forces with a previous Christian/reborn satanist Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen) who worms his way into the scene after unabashedly living and breathing this world Euronymous has created for him. Ideas fester and develop and transform into actions, and this process is one of Lord of Chaos’ greatest strengths. Åkerlund’s greater sense of tone and style may not be able to hold still enough through the runtime, but when it comes to small character-fuelled moments there’s no shortage. The film’s second act is when it’s most compelling. Euronymous and his ‘Black Circle’ of followers’ actions within his record store ‘Helvete’ reminded me of a darker and depraved version of High Fidelity, the comradery and hierarchy of relationships is in full flow and the power dynamic between Varg and Euronymous chugs along at a steady pace.
The script by Åkerlund and Dennis Magnusson lives for its set pieces. Varg’s ritualistic burning of churches across Norway allows for a barrage of gorgeous cinematography and clear moments where it feels like the film finds its footing… only for it to soon disperse into the ether. As a biopic it fails to stick close enough to one subject, and as a drama its tone often seems too fractured to form a consistent enough narrative. There are periods where Dead’s death weighs down on Euronymous in graphic nightmare sequences that completely contradict the previous, almost documentary-like style of filmmaking. Much like the people within it, Lords of Chaos sometimes becomes so worked up in its own sense of nihilism that it forgets how to entertain, and it’s a shame when the young cast on display here are so promising.
It’s hard at times to know what the intent of the film is. Culkin, Cohen, Anthony De La Torre and Sky Ferreira all give the material their full attention as depraved, awful individuals who are either caught up in the haste of youth or wear the backlash of their chosen lifestyle on their sleeves. As the film goes on, Euronymous is forced to accept his previous actions and begins to develop into adulthood, only to be punished for it. Whilst Varg’s attempt at rallying up disgust with a local paper is played purely for laughs, with misused Nazi iconography and an underlying sense of immaturity that tells us not to fear this character but to laugh at him. However, not ten minutes later we’re then asked to fear him; this yo-yoing mindset flicks back and forth so quickly, and whilst it may very well be drawn from the reality of such events it makes for a watch that leaves you uncertain about Varg’s characterization multiple times.
Jonas Åkerlund’s previous work such as Small Apartments used this lapse in tone to its advantage by playing with the darkly comedic presentation, but with such horrific iconography and downbeat real-life material to draw from, it’s worth asking why a directorial style wasn’t set up. Culkin’s Goodfellas-like narration tries its best to lighten up proceedings amidst the blood and fire, sparking a debate over whether the material was better suited as the darkest of comedies. Of all the films that claim to be ‘based on a true story’, the fact that something like this stays rather true to the source material is definitely unnerving and ripe for adaptation. If anything, Lords of Chaos acts as an interesting catalyst for further research into the subject, a rabbit-hole that leads into the darkened past of Norwegian black metal.