LORDS OF CHAOS (2018)
Directed by Jonas Åkerlund
Written by Jonas Åkerlund, Dennis Magnusson, based on the book by Michael Moynihan & Didrik Søderlind
Starring Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Valter Skarsgård, Anthony De La Torre, Jonathan Barnwell, Sam Coleman, Wilson Gonzalez, Lucian Charles Collier, Andrew Lavelle, James Edwyn, Gustaf Hammarsten, Jon Øigarden, Arion Csihar, Jason Arnopp, Levente Törköly, Tom van Heesch, Eric Casey Lamme, Petra Anita Mark, Anna Fésus
Find out more about this film here
I find myself, vowing to cover all things horror in these reviews, wondering if LORDS OF CHAOS is in fact a horror film. Metal and horror have been two interests of mine and often they go hand in hand, but that doesn’t mean they always have to or that one means the other. LORDS OF CHAOS is also labeled as a biography, though it states at the beginning that the film is “based on truths, lies, and what actually happened.”—a pretty vague descriptor. Still, even if some of the devious acts depicted in this film are true, I feel a bit weird seeing it played out in a slick cinematic format. It just feels icky criticizing the action, gore, technical aspects, and story in a film based on real life events. Still, there are enough aspects of LORDS OF CHAOS that I feel meet the criteria of what a horror film is (gory scenes, murder, mayhem, devil worship) that I think it qualifies.
Rory Culkin plays Euronymous, a Norwegian kid in the mid-1980’s interested in becoming not just a rock star, but a pioneer for a new musical sound. Right off the bat, Culkin’s narration tells us that Euronymous is the creator of Norwegian Black Metal, a sound that, up to that point, hadn’t been heard before. Not only does the musical subgenre have a specific sound of frantic beats, growling guitars, and snarling lyrics, but it also involves living a specific nihilistic lifestyle involving dismissal of the Catholic church, worship of Satan, and an overall hatred toward all things accepted as societal norms. It’s a lot of long hair, black leather, face painting, and a forward lean into the darker side of things. Euronymous gains notoriety with his band Mayhem after hiring a lead singer named Dead (Jack Kilmer), who suffers from overwhelming depression when he is not on stage or singing. Of the brink of stardom, the band suffers from all kinds of setbacks and speedbumps on the way to the top (including suicide, murder, vandalism, arson, along with the usual partying, drug/alcohol abuse, and sex that goes hand in hand with the rock star lifestyle). When wannabe Black Metalist Varg (Emory Cohen) begins following and eventually joins the band, it signals the end of Mayhem as tensions rise, jealousies flare, and dark one-upmanship trumps all aspirations of greatness in the name of rock.
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding LORDS OF CHAOS. It seems there are those who are Team Euronymous (Culkin) and those who side with Team Varg (Cohen). Team Euronymous seems to believe the story depicted in the film is true, while Team Varg accuses the film of completely missing the point of what black metal really is. Being a fan of metal, but not an expert by a longshot, I don’t know how accurate the facts depicted in the lives and crimes surrounding the Norwegian Black Metal band Mayhem. For me, it doesn’t really matter. My interest is in whether or not the film entertained and I think, for the most part–as disturbing as this film was, entertained I was indeed.
LORDS OF CHAOS has a bipolar energy about it. One minute it is lighthearted, showing Euronymous playfully chasing his pre-teen sister around his house and teaching her to scream “Hail Satan!” The next focuses on Dead’s bouts of crippling depression. The film is filled with these ups and downs as we laugh with Euronymous and his band as they look as if they are going to climb to success and try to have fun when they can. We are also made privy to the band member’s huge faults. Euronymous is an egomaniac, taking credit for basically every stroke of good luck the band receives. Culkin plays him as an opportunist, first to jump in and say the idea was him and then convincing his bandmates that it’s the truth even though they clearly know it’s not. The focus on Dead and his depression is the most tragic aspect of the film and if the filmmakers and actors did something perfect here, it is the way they capture the inescapable hopelessness that makes up the disease. Cohen’s Varg is highlighted as a pathetic wannabe groupie. His story is the most fleshed out, though, as through him, the amorphous meaning to what Norwegian Black Metal is takes shape.
The point of this story is pretty basic and clear. LORDS OF CHAOS highlights the weaknesses of the band rather than pays homage to it. It paints everyone in a pretty dark and pitiful light. It’s that tragedy that drives all of the bandmates towards one another in an attempt to find brotherhood, but these are deeply damaged people. Once together, they can’t help but immediately turn on each other. Mayhem may very well have become a household name if not for the true faults of the individual members; namely Euronymous, Varg, and Dead. The thing that brought them together is what tore them apart and filmmaker and former Black Metalist Jonas Åkerlund does a surprisingly good job of making that point bright and clear.
Aside from the thematic handling of the material and the depths the story goes, LORDS OF CHAOS depicts some heinous acts of violence and disturbing imagery. Those who are put off by animal death please steer clear. Dead has a hatred for cats. Being a cat lover myself, this was a hard watch (though the actual cat death is all handled off screen). Worse yet, there is a suicide that blew my mind, curled my toes, and upset my lunch. It is a truly heartbreaking scene and the camera never blinks or flinches to protect you from any gruesome detail. There’s also a concert scene where the guys try to out-black metal other bands that is mesmerizing, yet utterly disturbing. Like the fevered crows itself, I found myself getting into the primal and horrifying acts on stage and understood the adoration the band received. And while the blasphemous stuff that happens in the churches are sure to bother the staunch of the audience, I was much more set aback by the climactic knife attack that made me wince at every blow. For a biopic, this one pulls no punches and often feels like a spiked glove to the gut.
Culkin’s narration works most of the time, but often serves to lighten to tone when things get too dark. He plays Euronymous as somewhat smart and insightful. He knows that he is not the rock god he professes to be and that this Black Metal stuff is all for show. Cohen’s Varg is the opposite, so broken that he really doesn’t know what he is and latches onto something that really has no definition to find himself. The character dichotomy of these two fuels this story and it’s m favorite aspect of the film. The only place where Culkin’s narration feels out of place is the very end. This film feels as if it wanted to end on an upbeat instead of the downer that really occurred, and I think that’s a mistake.
The great debate surrounding this film is that there are those who say it is completely inaccurate. Others say that it is an incorrect depiction of what Black Metal truly is. I feel both people are missing the point, being that this film is all about the aimless existence of these kids and their wholehearted willingness to destroy even the little bit of good they had. The film itself is worth watching. I don’t know if it is historically accurate or true to Norwegian Black Metal, whatever that is. But I know LORDS OF CHAOS was a well made, well acted film that made me feel for the characters and their tragic lives. That’s all I look for in a film and I got it here.