Ye of purer form, be warned! There’s a moment early on in Jonas Åkerlund’s Norwegian black metal exploitation film Lords of Chaos that’ll determine your ability to stick around for the rest of the two-hour true crime feature. 22-year old singer “Dead” takes a kitchen knife and vertically slashes both his wrists. He then takes the knife to his own throat. Blood pouring from the self-inflicted wounds, “Dead” puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. Making permanent good on his extreme namesake.
With an obvious (and distasteful) taste for splatter (films like Evil Dead II and Braindead can be seen playing in the background), Åkerlund captures all of the above in exploitatively gruesome detail. The true-to-life wounds (this is a true story, despite its bogus goings-ons) are depicted with no sense of guilt and a full buttload of voyeurism; the Swedish director displaying no lick of shame in his documenting of a small icon’s suicide, jamming his camera in close proximity with the perforated hypodermis, peeled back and gushing from the draw of the blade. Åkerlund displays a shred of detached pity for the stupid, young characters in Lords of Chaos, a detestable bunch for sure, but that approach can make the watching of it an exercise in detached sociopathy.
Euronymous (Rory Culkin, decent in the role) discovers the gory remains of his Mayhem bandmate’s suicide and rather than phone the police, rushes to the local market store for a disposal camera. He repositions the body of his roommate, friend, and bandmate, assembling the weapons “Dead” (the nickname never more suiting) used to kill himself in an untidy but posed pile on the blood-stained mattress. Euronymous then plays photographer, snapping a handful of shots of his now-deceased pal. The guitarist/leader of Mayhem then pokes around in the mess of brain and skull fragments, like a child playing at roadkill. Finally, Euronymous makes necklaces from chunks of “Dead”’s skull and insist his fellow bandmates all wear them. He later starts a rumor that he ate some of the brains.
By this point in Lords of Chaos, you’ve either thrown the remote at the screen or angrily ex-ed out of this review. And I wouldn’t blame you in the slightest. To call it “not for everyone” would be both obvious on its face and a pretty vast understatement. Like saying that tongue splitting isn’t for everyone. Or sushi-pizza isn’t for everyone. You have to be somewhat fucked in the brain to make it through a movie like this without certain pangs of discomfort. Though not at the level of pure movie-making misanthropy as something like A Serbian Film, this is an antagonist picture with a certifiable black heart that can be tiresomely dark when it’s not deliriously fascinating.
There’s a reason Åkerlund frames the aforementioned suicide discovery as if we’re watching a serial killer collecting a memento: we’re supposed to hold a modicum of disdain for Lords of Chaos’s POV character. This despite his being surrounded by even worse edge-lord metal scene interlopers. Varg (played with stone-cold stupidity by Emory Cohen) is the yin to Euronymous’ yang – the “true believer” who can’t even attempt to square his dueling belief in satanism, paganism, and literal Nazism without a stupefied look and a mindless shrug. Varg is depicted as a proto-4Chan troll whose back-then equivalent of posting Pepe the Frog memes was literal arson and murder.
Nowadays, Varg is a full-blown literal Nazi who blasted this very movie for casting him with “a fat Jew.” A charming man, no doubt. Even today, getting past the sheer despicableness of these characters is no easy task to navigate and may make some viewers uncomfortable of even sitting down with a movie of this variety.
On the surface, Euronymous is on board with the violence, social anarchism, and destruction, but through Culkin’s performance (which is never quite as rich or complicated as it should have been) we see it as a posturing put-on; a philosophical farce. This has far-reaching consequences to the band, their inner-relationships, and their impending run-ins with the law.
The viewer should come to pity Mayhem’s delusional acts of faux-antipathy. Whether their desperate performance of “hardcore” is for the sake of true belief (again, in what, I don’t believe they know) or merely a performative publicity stunt, they come across as pathetic, childish, and yet singularly terrifying. Whether they’re shooting at cats, treating women like scum, burning down churches, or stabbing themselves or strangers, these are detestable characters. Just as they are and were in real life. And spending time with them may prove fascinating – in much the same way that docu-profiles on Ted Bundy and the like are fascinating (and rather en vogue) – but at what cost?
Åkerlund attempts to frame Lords of Chaos – and sometimes succeeds – as ideological warfare waged between two deeply misguided musicians. Though both Euronymous and Varg publicly espouse a similar anti-establishment belief system – anti-Christianity, anarchism, satanism, and public endorsement of crime – for one (Euronymous), words (despite their misanthropy and “get off my lawn” nature) are just a means for market; while the other (Varg) takes it to the extreme. He burns down churches. He erects Nazi memorabilia. He kills. Even in goth drag, it’s the purist vs. the capitalist. Though both are just the different sides to the same coin of pathetic bullied-become-bully.
There’s no speck of right in their worldview, just a bad-and-badder snapshot of misguided crybaby extremism. In that sense, Lords of Chaos is a one-of-a-kind coming-of-rage story that profiles black metal man-babies who confuse unpopularity and rancor with satanic righteousness. And yet, I couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling that the film feels indebted to Mayhem’s legacy and drives home the ultimate art vs. artist argument. To gawk or not to gawk? – that is the question. Åkerlund seems to taunt us, reminding me that a fanboy and metal scenester is sitting behind the camera – someone who knew these players personally – and one can’t help but feel a bit icky about the whole thing. Like if Joseph Goebbels made a snarky Hitler movie.
CONCLUSION: Jonas Åkerlund’s ‘Lords of Chaos’ uses the true story of the 80’s Norwegian black metal scene to spotlight a morally bankrupt subculture given to astonishing extremism and heinous crime. Though it pokes at the underlying hypocrisy of apathy, it still seems a bit in awe of the scene – which doesn’t make any of it go down any easier.
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