Jonas Akerlund’s raucous Lords of Chaos looks at the early days of the blossoming Norwegian Black metal scene in the late 80’s and early 90’s; a musical movement that remains fairly infamous among metal fans as much for the antics of some of the principal characters as its lasting musical legacy. Murder, suicide, arson and arguably tiresome baiting of a non-comprehending mainstream press all featured and catapulted the burgeoning musicians to some debatable form of stardom.
The crux of the story is the relationship between Mayhem lead singer Euronymous (Rory Culkin) and Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen), driving force of one-man project Burzum. Disillusioned with the apparent lack of balls being shown in the nearby Swedish Death Metal scene, Euronymous forms Mayhem and spearheads a new Black Metal scene to success, revelling in pantomime antics and a small but dedicated cohort of followers.
Mayhem’s notoriety places them at the centre of a group of devotees who come to be known as the Black Circle, based around an Oslo record shop called Helvete, Norwegian for “hell”. An element of one-upmanship exists between the various musicians as they variously try to “out evil” one another, resorting to ever more harmful capers including, but not limited to, the burning of several churches. The group flirts with infamy in the local press but it is the increasingly-strained relationship between Euronymous and Vikernes, both fancying themselves spiritual drivers of the movement, that is its ultimate undoing. Mutual animosity and, perhaps, misunderstanding culminate in a murder that is still the subject of some debate.
Black Metal fans will no doubt pick nits off this regarding its historical accuracy. In fact, the book of the same name, on which this is loosely based, came in for no small amount of criticism due to perceived inaccuracies. The key for me lies in the movie’s opening and an intro that declares it to be based in fact and lies. There’s self-evidently a fair amount of artistic licence at play, here, but director Akerlund, is no poseur. He has some (brief) pedigree as the drummer of Black Metal band Bathory, so if he wants to embellish to a degree, then I say let him riff. It’s no great loss if the movie comes across like a character assassination of Vikernes who, whatever your opinion of his music, is deserving of scorn on a human level.
It’s regularly a tough watch and Akerlund, a man who has never been one to skimp on violence in some of his music video, does not hold back. A particularly graphic suicide scene caused such a bad reaction in another viewer at my screening that he had to leave the room altogether and did not return. Anyone likely to be triggered by such material would do well to consult the BBFC’s Insight guidelines.
Among the ritualistic gore there’s also a sense that Lords of Chaos has actually managed to bottle the heady rush of excitement that follows an artistic breakthrough. This is most notable in the earlier scenes of chaotic live performances as the movement begins to take off in earnest. It’s also tempered with a forlorn quality, amplified by a Sigur Ros score, and moments of genuine compassion. Sprinkled through it though is a deadpan (black, if you will) vein of humour that pricks some of the pomposity. Jokes at the expense of desperate-to-shock young men, out to make names for themselves and a sense that, certainly in the director’s eyes, affectation and professional misanthropy can be utterly fatuous, no matter how good your music is.
Thriller, Horror | USA, 2018 | 18 | 29th March 2019 (UK) | Arrow Films | Dir.Jonas Åkerlund | Rory Culkin, Jon Øigarden, Emory Cohen, Sky Ferreira, Jack Kilmer,Valter Skarsgard