The world of Norwegian black metal is already twisted enough as is, not only for the image that the musicians have created for themselves but also because of the notoriety that many of the biggest figures involved have achieved for their lives outside their work. One such band that exemplifies the world of black metal is none other than Mayhem, whose members have went all around from noted arsonists, murderers, and even neo-Nazis – with one among these people being Varg Vikernes of Burzum (who reportedly had despised this film). But looking back at the formation of the band and their noted album De Mysteriis dom Sathanas, there’s already a fascinating story that can be told here given the crazy things that have happened beyond the band’s formation for the creative process will almost seem secondary to what more you would hear about how it remained one of the most influential black metal albums of all time. But Lords of Chaos is not the film that such a story deserved, and for the matter, it doesn’t really have all that much interesting to show even about how fascinating the formation of Mayhem was, you just have a bunch of bad dudes being bad dudes as they show you here.
Norway’s black metal scene is responsible for creating some of the very best music that the world of metal has ever experienced, but in covering the story of how Mayhem came to so well-known, it’s also not one that came free of misanthropy, Satanism, or even deaths. Told through the eyes of Øystein Aarseth, otherwise known as Euronymous (Rory Culkin), we see how the teenaged metal star’s fascination with music had come about – from the formation of Mayhem to the suicide of the former vocalist and lyricist Dead, to Euronymous’s eventual meeting with the peculiar Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen). But there’s nothing particularly fascinating about the bunch that we’re seeing here, aside from the fact that we all knew that the group was formed by a bunch of awful people – yet director Jonas Åkerlund (fittingly enough, a former black metal drummer himself for Bathory) keeps you sticking around with them. It all only ever comes to the point where these people just ring as nothing but insufferable caricatures of those who buy into their own image to a damaging degree.
Looking back at these people in a modern context you would also be thinking that these are the same sorts of people who take part in some sort of sick joke from 4chan and expect everyone to be in on it. But the more you stick around it all ever comes off as nothing more than purely repulsive. Which is fitting enough, especially given the sort of people that Lords of Chaos would be about but the film doesn’t have anything insightful to say about their worldview either. Everything is purely aestheticized for the sake of shock value, whether it be the suicide of Dead or even Euronymous’s reaction afterwards, but you’re still made to stick around with people committing horrible act one after another – yet Åkerlund also keeps to an idea that they’re also just merely angsty. Which seems to conflict with the tone of the film given the stories of the actual people (it’s especially egregious in regards to Varg Vikernes’s portrayal), but it also makes a case for how much does Åkerlund truly care about the world of black metal. These are people who present themselves as being the embodiment of “true” black metal, but Åkerlund doesn’t ever have much interest in the music either so it’s hard to tell what he even wants us to make of them other than the fact they were just a bunch of people doing bad things to make names for themselves.
If there’s anything else that Åkerlund has really succeeded at, it’s clear enough in the way in which he captures the atmosphere that made Mayhem’s image every bit as notorious as it was. The scenes where you have the churches burning down are every bit as terrifying as you would ever expect them to be, but it’s also rightfully portraying these people for being the exact opposite of what they want to make themselves out to be. The performances all across the board are fantastic, with Rory Culkin’s own turn as Euronymous even being relatively moving in the most appropriate sense. Yet the film continually has to remind you that you shouldn’t be feeling for him because that’s not what Euronymous ever wanted out of his own legacy behind Mayhem. Considering the image that black metal had already drowned itself in, whether it be misanthropy or Satanism, it’s almost fascinating to see how these people descend into madness in order to build their own idea of a celebrity status, and it’s also built up like a great horror movie too. But what more does Åkerlund expect us to believe out of Mayhem, other than the fact they were just a bunch of awful people? And what does Åkerlund want us to make of their music, if he won’t even let us hear any of it – just having a score by Sigur Rós of all bands here instead?
You’re better off reading about how wild the history of the Norwegian black metal scene is than you are watching whatever Lords of Chaos thinks it’s saying about the creative forces behind it. It’s not only a film that cares so little about the actual music, but it’s also a film whose sick aestheticizing of actual deaths will leave a bad taste in the mouth to those who are unfamiliar with Mayhem’s history. It all feels like we’re made to laugh along with everything that goes on, yet none of this ever happens to be that. For a film that was all about making a sensation out of a bunch of murderers and arsonists who believed themselves to be the “true” faces of black metal, you’ll only leave the film thinking that Mayhem and Burzum were a bunch of posers because this film only ever feels hell-bent on downplaying how significant their impact on the entire music scene was because Lords of Chaos can’t be bothered to care about the music if it actually did. It all feels like the wrong lessons were taken from GoodFellas and just came alive here. Only thing is, you wouldn’t be laughing at Varg Vikernes reciting Joe Pesci’s “funny how?” moment, just knowing that he’s a neo-Nazi and a murderer roaming freely. I’ll probably just put on an album by Mayhem, Emperor, or Ulver to remind myself how wonderful the music actually is before I’ll ever come back to watch Lords of Chaos demean them all as posers.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Gunpowder & Sky.
Directed by Jonas Åkerlund
Screenplay by Dennis Magnusson, Jonas Åkerlund, from the book by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind
Produced by Kwesi Dickson, Danny Gabai, Jim Czarnecki, Erik Gordon, Jack Arbuthnott, Kō Mori
Starring Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira
Release Date: March 29, 2019
Running Time: 118 minutes