DIRECTED BY: Jonas Åkerlund
FEATURING: Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Jon Øigarden, Valter Skarsgård
PLOT: The founder of True Norwegian Black Metal, Euronymous, narrates his rise and fall from beyond the grave in a tale of music, church burning, metal, and marketing.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Lords of Chaos is a well-crafted biopic/docudrama about some very weird people. Graphic suicide and murder notwithstanding, this is an eminently mainstream, straightforward piece of high-quality cinema. Fans of True Norwegian Black Metal will want to upgrade this from a “recommended” to a “Must see” rating.
COMMENTS: Norway: the land of Ski Queen cheese, smiling people in bright sweaters, and True Norwegian Black Metal. For the last of those three things, you can thank “Euronymous” (née Øystein Aarseth), founder of the band Mayhem and, if Lords of Chaos is to be believed, something of a marketing genius. Jonas Åkerlund, no stranger to the metal scene of the late ’80s, brings the dramatic tale of Euronymous’ journey from upper-middle-class rocker bad-boy to tragic murder victim to an English-speaking audience in this docudrama. With a sure touch and an unlikely sense of humor, Åkerlund spins a formidable yarn about some troubled lads spiraling out of control.
From his omnipotent afterlife perch, Øystein (Rory Culkin) narrates his early roots—appropriately subterranean in his parents’ basement. Graduating quickly from the status of inept musicians riding around in their parents Volvos, the metal group Mayhem enjoys a series of lucky breaks accompanied by implied Faustian bargains. They find a frontman, Death (an eerie Jack Kilmer), who rockets them to sub-fame before blasting his brains out. Death’s replacement is even darker: an impressionable, awkward young man named Christian (Emory Cohen), who changes his name to Varg after he buys into the whole death-cult-Satanist-nihilist shtick that Øystein has fabricated. Varg starts burning down churches, and the other band members’ moral fabric disintegrates as a horrible contest of one-upmanship rips them apart. As his vision of commercial glory begins to unravel, Øystein is forced to come to terms with the beast he’s created.
While many films directed by Music Video People obviously show their signature markings, Jonas Åkerlund stays his hand stylistically. His story is about the people behind the image, not a love letter to the presumed madness and evil of True Norwegian Black Metal. On the occasions that he does indulge in his fast-dreamy editing, the effect is that much more striking: Øystein’s recurring daydreams/nightmares of traveling through the woods, looking for his first friend and leading man are unsettling and touching. The music, most of it performed by the (non-Norwegian, non-metal) band Sigur Rós, alternately haunts and pummels. And the acting transforms these aspiring metal caricatures into realistic portraits of young outcasts.
Which brings me to Rory Culkin. Yes, he is from the same brood as the famous (to some of us older types) Macaulay Culkin, but in Lords of Chaos he seems to be channeling a young Steve Buscemi (carried in no small part by his eyes and his near-constant, “What the Hell is wrong with you people?” tone of voice). Culkin carries this picture. His joyful cynicism is underscored as his post-death montage wraps up, “No. Fuck. Stop this sentimental shit.” Though he may call himself “Euronymous”, Øystein remains Øystein: a cheeky, ambitious nerd with a flair for publicity. Lords of Chaos rubs elbows with the countless musical biopics that have streamed forth from the movie industry since time immemorial. It’s one of the few, though, to capture melodrama, mundanity, and hilarity so capably and with such strong disregard for nostalgia.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Despite Åkerlund’s refusal to lionize these immature kids, ‘Lords of Chaos’ is tremendous fun. Caveat: one must be able to handle severed pig heads, cat torture, and casual Nazism.” –Amy Nicholson, Variety