Jonas Åkerlund, who began his career as the drummer for influential proto-black metal act Bathory, is the perfect director for Vice Films’ long-gestating Mayhem biopic Lords Of Chaos. Åkerlund may not have been present at the drunken rager where corpse paint was introduced for the first time, but he understands better than most the mindset of disaffected metalheads like Øystein Aarseth (a.k.a. Euronymous), Kristian Vikernes (a.k.a. Varg), and the rest of the so-called “black circle” that escalated from just talking about evil and death to perpetuating it in early-’90s Norway. As it turns out, he thinks they kind of sucked.
The true-crime elements of the Norwegian black metal scene have been extremely well documented over the past 25 years, in documentaries (Until The Light Takes Us), podcasts (Disgraceland and Last Podcast On The Left, among others), innumerable magazine articles, and the Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind book from which Lords Of Chaos takes its name. And that’s understandable, because from a morbid fascination standpoint, this story has everything: suicide, murder, satanism, church burnings, even (rumored) cannibalism. Lords Of Chaos begins with the first of those, as Euronymous (Rory Culkin) and his deeply troubled roommate, Dead (Jack Kilmer), bang out brutal-but-sloppy black metal for their friends in theatrical live shows at the run-down country house where they live—that is, until Dead’s obsession with suicide culminates with his self-inflicted death by shotgun. Euronymous finds the body, and in a revealing moment, decides not to call the police. Instead, he takes a picture of his friend’s corpse and uses it as the cover of a live bootleg album. (Don’t click this link if you’re squeamish in any way.)
Lords of Chaos superficially explores the corrosive effects of tabloid fame, and how the black-metal scene’s deadliest rivalry was driven by toxic ego. It even creates an origin story for this conflict, as scene king Euronymous makes fun of rage-filled nobody Varg (Emory Cohen) and his Scorpions patch when they meet for the first time at a late-night falafel joint. But the film takes special satisfaction in painting Euronymous and his friends as sheltered brats, whose exaggerated misanthropy and obsession with authenticity was little more than cover for their own privileged suburban backgrounds. And it’s true: The reason that Euronymous was able to own his own record store and record label in his early 20s is because his parents were funding the whole thing.
But while recording an album with song titles like “Feeble Screams From Forests Unknown” and “Black Spell Of Destruction” with money borrowed from your mom is indeed some poseur shit, Åkerlund’s commentary doesn’t go much deeper than simple contempt. The director’s choice to utilize (intentionally) corny voice-over from Culkin as our entry into the story bears mixed results. On the one hand, it effectively underlines the film’s mocking tone, creating tension as we brace ourselves for a scene of violent self-immolation accompanied by a look straight to the camera and a “you may wonder how I got myself into this mess.” (That exact scenario doesn’t happen, but it may as well have.) On the other, it flattens the violent sexism and homophobia and casual Nazism that still flourish in black metal into wacky “boys will be boys” antics.
Aside from its acerbic tone, Lords Of Chaos doesn’t add much to the story of Mayhem. It does provide a girlfriend character (and that’s all she is) in the form of Sky Ferreira’s Ann-Marit, who serves as a symbol of Euronymous’ impending maturity, rather than a fully defined person in herself. Having no female characters at all might have been preferable to depicting them as holes in need of filling, walking ATMs, or both. Of course, that’s the view of women shared by many of these characters, especially Varg, who the film portrays as the stud of the ’90s Norwegian scene. (He’s now a white supremacist YouTuber.) But while combining the more odious aspects of black metal ideology with rock ’n’ roll cliché may have been cathartic for Åkerlund, providing him the opportunity to exorcise his youthful regrets, it hardly makes for an enlightening viewing experience. Lords Of Chaos has no reverence for Norwegian black metal. But it doesn’t provide much insight into it either.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from Fantastic Fest.