Let me start off this review by saying that in no way do I consider myself any kind of expert on black metal. In fact, most of my knowledge of metal music begins and ends with the artists who made a name for themselves here in the states. So, while I can’t really judge Lords of Chaos on its accuracy and authenticity in terms of the black metal movement of the 1980s and ’90s, what I can say is that in terms of creating an explosively unforgettable narrative brimming with a sense of bedlam and anarchy, director Jonas Åkerlund has done a helluva job with Lords of Chaos, which feels a bit more like a horror movie about the destructive patterns of youth than it does a straight-up biopic (and that works for me—for others, results may vary).
Lords of Chaos begins by letting audiences know that its narrative is based on “truth and lies,” as Åkerlund and co-writer Dennis Magnusson utilized a number of sources—interviews with friends and family, police records, and Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s book of the same name—while working together on their script. We are first introduced to Euronymous (aka Øystein Aarseth, played by Rory Culkin) who, looking to ignite the black metal scene in Oslo with his burgeoning band Mayhem, sets out to find the perfect vocalist. When he discovers Per Yngve “Dead” Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), Euronymous feels ready for his new movement to take on the world, never anticipating that his death-obsessed lead singer would go so far as to kill himself (which we bear witness to in one of Lords of Chaos’ more gruesome moments).
Instead of packing it in, Euronymous decides to use Dead’s suicide as a launching point for a new phase of notoriety for Mayhem and Norwegian black metal, unable to see that his poetic waxing over issues like structured religion, government, Satanism, and other nihilistic beliefs could have any kind of long-term adverse effects. And when his latest discovery, bassist Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen), takes Euronymous’ vocal grandstanding to heart, a deadly rivalry heats between the two, culminating in a violent and horrific showdown, with its outcome continuing to reverberate among black metal fans over the last three decades.
It’s hard to tell just what exactly are “spoilers” when it comes to Lords of Chaos (I admittedly waited until after seeing the film to Google several of the real-life players in the film, and subsequently fell down an increasingly fascinating rabbit hole), so I’m keeping things slightly ambiguous about certain aspects of the story. For those of you who are closer to the actual story of Euronymous and Varg, I’m not really sure just how Lords of Chaos is going to make you feel, but from simply a film fan’s perspective, I was immensely entertained by Åkerlund’s unapologetically ferocious exploration of the lives of these young men, and the consequences of their destructive belief system that shocked the world in the early ’90s.
For as much as it is an explosive celebration of black metal, Lords of Chaos also succeeds as an intriguing character study of these dueling personalities that tragically got caught up in their own hype (so to speak), leading to the downfall of both Euronymous and Varg. Even though we spend most of Lords of Chaos with Culkin’s enigmatic character, Åkerlund doesn’t soften his protagonist’s rougher edges, painting the Mayhem founder as someone who enjoyed talking the talk, but was never really comfortable walking the walk when it came to the destructive and misanthropic ideologies he often preached, such as murder, burning churches, and embracing Satanism.
Varg, though, is all too ready to embrace the true darkness of black metal, and as he begins initiating church burnings all over Norway, we see how fragile his ego is, especially in the shadow of Euronymous. Cohen’s depiction of Varg is pure, unfiltered ferocity, teetering on the edge of insanity, ready to crack under the pressure of his misdeeds at any given moment. Culkin is easily one of the biggest draws for watching Lords of Chaos, but Cohen’s ability to tap into the unbalanced savagery that drives the character of Varg is unforgettably terrifying, and his performance in the film is nothing short of revelatory.
Åkerlund’s background in music (he was a member of the black metal band Bathory, and directed some of the most successful music videos of the last 30 years), serves the visual style of Lords of Chaos well, and it’s clear from every single frame that he’s incredibly passionate about this world and isn’t afraid to dig into the more problematic aspects of the black metal movement and the folks behind it all. Those looking for a retelling of the real-life events may have some issues with Lords of Chaos, but as someone who had no real emotional connectedness to the actual story, and was just looking to see a kickass movie, I found Åkerlund’s shockingly raw coming-of-age tale to be endlessly engaging.
Movie Score: 4/5
In case you missed it, check here to catch up on our other live coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival!