Fails to delve into its subject, getting bogged down in scenes of posturing and crime without ever truly reckoning with how teens in the most contented nation on Earth could lash out so violently.
Of all the bands enmeshed in the infamy of Norway’s early black metal scene, none retain more notoriety than Mayhem, a group so steeped in innovation and horror that the genre is permanently entwined with its fate. Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos offers a biographical overview of the band at the center of these grim beginnings. Structured as an indie coming-of-age tale, the film follows a group of insular, nerdish teens as they find themselves making music, only to get more lost than ever in the hellish subculture they create.
The film starts with a sarcastically chipper introduction from Øystein Aarseth (Rory Culkin), a teenage metalhead who welcomes viewers to a montage of his native Norway as he casually notes its extensive social programs and beauty before, without losing his sunny tone, mentioning tidbits like the country’s high suicide rate. Aarseth, who goes by the stage name Euronymous, is the leader of Mayhem, a speed metal band that undergoes an evolution into a heretofore unexplored sound. When the guitarist develops a new, hyperspeed method of playing riffs, Mayhem morphs into something unique, a band that conjures the buzzing, bruising sound of death and brimstone.
Amusingly, Culkin plays Euronymous like the smug teen that he was. The guitarist rails against notions of selling out so strict that he even accuses Swedish death metallers of promoting “life metal” because of how much they party. By the same token, Aarseth is hypnotically fixated on his rock image, constantly parlaying both his and his peers’ increasingly reckless, nihilistic behavior into publicity. When Euronymous opens his own record shop, Helvete, he appoints himself the impresario of the black metal scene, though in practicality it largely means he acts like the record clerks in High Fidelity, snarking at customers he considers posers while bragging incessantly about his own cool. Far from the ringleader of a group of arsonists and killers, Euronymous comes across as more of the dungeon master for a D&D club.
Gradually, Euronymous’ status as undisputed leader of this nascent movement is challenged by some of his own collaborators. First is a young Swedish teen who calls himself Dead (Jack Kilmer). Dead joins the band and completes its change into the ultimate in grim panic, his jagged rasp the sonic embodiment of putrefaction. Kilmer emphasizes the eerie calm in Dead’s suicidal outlook. He moves in zombie-like cadences, all shuffling steps and maladroit, slow arm movements. In the film’s most arresting moment, the band debuts their new vocalist at a gig where they unleash the full alchemical force of their new sound. Euronymous’s blurred guitar riffs first take center stage, but soon all eyes are on Dead, whose hissed vocals cut through the maelstrom of noise. When Dead begins cutting himself on stage to the shock and admiration of the metalhead crowd, he immediately becomes the focal point of the group.
Dead’s time with the band, and on this Earth, is cut short by his subsequent suicide. As in Boogie Nights, the brutal act of suicide marks the demarcation point between the seedy but relatively innocent early phase into the abyss that opens up under the oblivious characters. Euronymous callously decides to exploit Dead’s suicide for press, but the cred this buys the band also invites more extreme fans, among them Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen). We first meet Vikernes as a shy, awkward fan still using his birth name of Kristian, but he reemerges after Dead’s death radicalized. Euronymous troublingly views all acts of vandalism and nihilism as good marketing, but Vikernes truly believes in promoting evil. When he mentions being a vegetarian, Euronymous sarcastically replies “just like Hitler,” to which the young man enthusiastically agrees. As Euronymous rests on his laurels, Vikernes launches a one-man band, Burzum, whose ultra lo-fi recording quality and blistering fury catapults him to the forefront of the scene, much to Euronymous’ chagrin.
Åkerlund amusingly pitches their struggle in tones of huffy resentment, particularly from Euronymous, who makes careful note of just how much more popular Vikernes is with girls than himself. By playing this material as black comedy, the director foregrounds the root of the Norwegian scene’s atrocities as acts of teenage jealousy. That comedy becomes more and more twisted as the two escalate their attempts at one-upmanship and both sink into a level of heinous antisocial behavior void of empathy.
Yet the film ultimately loses track of its tone, which causes its second half to drag mercilessly after the earlier sprint through Mayhem’s formative days. Furthermore, Åkerlund’s swerve toward severity routinely comes off as po-faced, belated attempts to take the material seriously. That it regards the culmination of Euronymous and Vikernes’ war for credibility as the nadir of black metal, as opposed to the strain of church arson or the far more horrific murder of a gay man by Emperor drummer Faust, says a great deal about the film’s misplaced sense of shock. Lords of Chaos fails to delve into its subject, getting bogged down in scenes of posturing and crime without ever truly reckoning with how teens in the most contented nation on Earth could lash out so violently, nor how a style of music now sublimated into experimental and metal circles is disturbingly entwined with that violence.