Black metal has never been a purely musical phenomenon, nor was it meant to be. Even the most ardent of Mayhem, Darkthrone, or Gorgoroth fans would concede that its practitioners aren’t virtuosos so much as vessels for an anti-establishment worldview that demonizes Christianity the way punk rock savaged Reagan and Thatcher. If you know anything at all about the genre, it probably isn’t that “Transilvanian Hunger” is a pretty solid album — it’s that, back in the early ‘90s, a group of disaffected Norwegians earned notoriety by burning down centuries-old churches and committing grisly murders.
So don’t be surprised that “Lords of Chaos” offers less insight into Mayhem’s songwriting process than it does into the relationship between Øystein Aarseth (aka Euronymous, played by Rory Culkin) and Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen). The friends-turned-rivals, who performed in the foundational band Mayhem together, have emerged as the most infamous figures from that era — especially because only one of them survived it.
The film is directed by Jonas Åkerlund, who, having served as drummer for black-metal pioneers Bathory in the early ‘80s and won a Grammy for directing Madonna’s “Ray of Light music video, is uniquely suited for such a task. “Lords of Chaos” is far from a poseur, but neither is it every bit as grvm and kvlt as, say, “True Norwegian Black Metal” — a fellow Vice production that still ranks as the defining cinematic document of this disreputable movement. (Also worth seeking out: “Until the Light Takes Us” and “Metalhead.”) Purists may object to a distinctly Norwegian phenomenon being portrayed by American actors speaking unaccented English and Culkin’s occasionally generic narration (“Here I am — an average teenager, you may think, but you couldn’t be more wrong”), but Åkerlund deserves kudos for going beyond the tabloid-ready scandals and looking for whatever meaning may lie behind them.
That’s no easy feat, considering the material. Mayhem’s members cut themselves onstage and throw severed pig heads into the crowd, but they also borrow their parents’ cars to go out at night and remove the Scorpions patches from their jacket when that band is no longer deemed cool. “They’re oppressing us with their kindness and their goodness,” Euronymous says of Christian society without a hint of irony; well-to-do suburban ennui has never been the most self-aware condition. Åkerlund doesn’t shy away from the fact that his characters’ ideology — a blend of paganism, Satanism, and Nazism that collapses under the slightest bit of scrutiny — is convoluted nonsense and their behavior ranges from distasteful to reprehensible, never excusing their actions even as he attempts to understand them.
Varg in particular, introduced as a poseur who eventually buys into this extreme belief system more than his peers (who are more interested in getting loaded and shouting “Hail Satan!” at unsuspecting passersby than they are in living up to their evil ideals), is radicalized as he tries to one-up his former hero. “Either you do it for the cause and you take action,” Varg tells Euronymous as their rivalry intensifies, “or you do it because you want attention. You can’t have it both ways.” That he says this to a man who, upon discovering the corpse of his lead singer (named, it must be acknowledged, Dead), took a picture of the suicide scene and made necklaces out of his skull fragments should not be lost on anyone.
Dead, real name Per Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), is in some ways the most important character in the film despite departing early on. His violent end — and, just as importantly, Euronymous’ callous reaction to it — marks a turning point for a fledgling movement that has up to this point been more talk than action. That photo becomes the cover for Mayhem’s “Live in Leipzig” album, separating the true believers from the mere provocateurs and helping Euronymous cultivate the dark image he’s long aspired to. Everything escalates from there, with peripheral figures committing heinous crimes of their own as everyone involved grows into their invented personae and detaching from their former selves.
Åkerlund and co-writer Dennis Magnusson’s greatest coup is in the way they eventually circle back to the fateful day that Dead slit his wrists and throat, wrote a suicide note that began “Excuse all the blood,” and ended things for good with a shotgun blast. (Squeamish viewers will protest how graphic this and other sequences are, but there’s really no getting around it.) Maybe Euronymous wasn’t as unfazed by all this as he let on, the film suggests, and maybe much of what he did in the aftermath — the photos, the necklaces, the general air of uncaring — was a coping mechanism. Maybe, in that moment, Euronymous became Øystein again.
Much like the music, “Lords of Chaos” is frequently unpleasant but oddly compelling — not least because Åkerlund ensures that the film never takes itself as seriously as its subjects did. “All this evil and dark crap was supposed to be fun,” Euronymous laments as things grow increasingly out of hand. In “Lords of Chaos,” it is.
Gunpowder and Sky will release “Lords of Chaos” in theaters on February 8.