Director: Jonas Akerlund
Starring: Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira
If there’s any real takeaway from Lords of Chaos, it’s that everyone with any moral compass or genuine opinions is a poser. At least, that’s what one can ascertain from watching this cinematic adaptation of the history book in which the film is based. There’s some interesting genre-mixing at work in Lords of Chaos, but it never creates a coherent or sustainable mesh to compensate for its flaws. As someone who was a huge fan of black metal in his teenage years, I feel that if my teenaged self sat down to watch Lords of Chaos, he would be disappointed, not for the bad filmmaking, but for the petty and consistently insecure depictions of these musicians I’d so admired.
In a small Norwegian town where nothing seems to happen, a guitarist who dubbed the name Euronymous (Rory Culkin, with no accent) formulated a musical concoction known as black metal, featuring a heavily distorted sound and screeched lyrics, praising the devil and everything malevolent in the world. It begins not as the serious thriller/horror its been labelled as, but as a comedic capturing of a certain music-based scene, similar to SLC Punk. Things become more disturbing however, when they get a new vocalist, who dubs the name Dead, played by Jack Kilmer.
The personality and dynamic of Dead were easily the most intriguing part of the film. As someone who studied black metal as a teenager, I already knew the end results of leading black metal figures like Dead, Euronymous, and Varg Vikernes in the early 1990s; however, it was very enthralling to see the unravelling of Dead’s psyche and his entire mental breakdown leading to his final actions. Had the film simply been about him rather than the pettiness in the back-and-forth between Euronymous and Varg, I’m sure this film would’ve functioned much better as a character study.
However, this may not have been true to the source material and its not what the film did. After an unfortunate incident, Dead is out of the picture and Euronymous amorally capitalizes on this, eventually meeting a man named Christian, who modified his name into Varg Vikernes to become more “satanic.” At first, Euronymous writes him off as a poser due to the “Scorpions” patch on his vest. But its Varg’s much less interesting unravelling that sets the film into its downward spiral. There are interesting themes here about mob mentality and the occult that could’ve been helmed better by a more seasoned filmmaker (Akerlund has mostly directed music videos up until now). There are attempted messages about those who feel outcasted by the heavily-religious European societies who lash out in rage that never feels truly justified. It doesn’t feel like pure evil, or even circumstantial evil, just late adolescent angst. You never feel there’s real pent-up anger within these characters. The direction feels like its simply listing off events instead of building up a story. In one scene a black metal musician stabs and kills a man, and we know virtually nothing about him except that he was interested in doing so.
Like I said, there’s some comedy in the first act of Lords of Chaos. Some of it works, the rest is the kind of schlock you’d see in a trashy mean-spirited comedy like Step Brothers. After that, most of the comedy comes from the musicians’ attempts at being hardcore. Even the press is openly mocking them. In the second and third acts, there are attempts at a healthy blend of thriller and horror in this historical story. While there are scenes of undoubtable intensity, the horror is mostly absent, save for a couple of scenes of cheap jump-scare sequences, in which they finally delve into the psychological state of Euronymous, and how his relationship with Dead had affected him. Nevertheless, had it not been for the inclusion of Varg Vikernes’ arc, this film could have ascended to the potential it showed.