Mayhem is the most infamous metal band of all time. Those familiar with their story will watch Lords of Chaos with a tight knot embedded in their stomachs, which gradually constricts as the predictably hideous events play out. For everybody else, Jonas Åkerlund’s film will first play like a goofy tale of a bunch of shitty dudes trying to outdo each other by being the most horrible and violent — until, abruptly, it doesn’t.
The prolific music video director Åkerlund, who’s shot for Metallica and Rammstein, among many others, is the perfect fit for this material. His decision to keep the story in Norway while allowing the actors to speak using their own cadence, rather than adopting silly Norvegian accents, proves remarkably prescient. It’s immediately obvious these are little more than arrogant, immature kids playing around with dark things they don’t quite understand.
Lords of Chaos’ antihero is Euronymous (a revelatory Rory Culkin, finally leading the charge), a rebellious teen creating musical mayhem in his basement. Early on, there’s a brilliant family photo gag that shows Euronymous happily posing with his normal parents and little sister clad in fuzzy jumpers. This is simply a normal kid, from a normal place, who chooses to do something abnormal.
After recruiting another weirdo, who adopts the nickname Dead due to his suicidal depression (sensitively played by Jack Kilmer, son of Val), Euronymous ships off to a dilapidated house in the woods to make metal history. They thrash out riffs until Euronymous creates an all-new style of music: Norwegian black metal. It’s harder, faster and darker than anything that’s come before, and nobody else is tough enough to play it.
To that end, Euronymous and Dead put on corpse paint and practice growling about bringing death and destruction in the mirror, as you do.
Lords of Chaos is shot fly-on-the-wall style, like a behind the scenes documentary, except grittier and with less of a Hollywood sheen. The live performances, during which it becomes clear Dead maybe isn’t dealing with his issues as healthily as he should be, crackle with the dark energy of the very best, most intense metal shows — the kind where you worry about breaking your neck from headbanging so hard.
It’s after one of these gigs that Emory Cohen’s Varg mysteriously appears. Although he’s initially turned away by the pompous Euronymous for wearing the wrong kind of patch on his jacket, Varg bides his time, reappearing as a darker version of himself. He’s been making music and wants Euronymous, and his fledgling record label, to produce. Thus a friendship/business and relationship/rivalry is born. The harder Varg tries to impress Euronymous, the less he cares. Soon, the stakes are heightened to literal church-burning.
Åkerlund advises right off the bat that his film is based on “truth, lies, and what actually happened.” The reality is, we’ll probably never get the full story. But if this is as close as it gets, then fans and newcomers to the tale (and the band) can rest easy. Lords of Chaos is a nasty little treat: compelling, involving, fascinating and often shocking. It’s also a surprisingly nice looking film (which would no doubt piss off Mayhem), loaded with gorgeous green scenery that captures the beauty of the Norwegian landscape.
Several of the classic Mayhem portraits are recreated, as well as various visual references made to corpse paint, pigs’ heads and upside down crosses. The makeup, SFX and costuming are all on point, and the actors look the part without it seeming like they’re stars dressing up in “rock” drag (the long wigs fully convince here). Culkin, Kilmer and Cohen all look young too, which is hugely important in putting across how dumb they’re all acting, and how seriously they take everything (“We isolated ourselves and focused on our dark evil music,” says Euronymous, without a shred of irony, early on).
Cohen is the most squishily baby-faced, making his portrayal of the infamous Varg (an actual neo-Nazi who was charged with a hate crime in France not five years ago) more disturbing. The Brooklyn star has proven his worth many times over, but his performance here is so nuanced, his soft eyes so pleadingly desperate for love and acceptance, it almost makes you empathize with the real man (an uncomfortable proposition that requires further analysis elsewhere). It’s a queasily accurate portrayal.
Still, this is Culkin’s film. Both he and Cohen have producing credits, suggesting this was a real passion project for them. Although Cohen ostensibly has the meatier role, it’s Culkin who shows depths hitherto unplumbed. His arrogant, petulant Euronymous is equal parts hardcore rock star and pathetic poser. Åkerlund doesn’t cast judgment on any one person here, but the story is presented in such a way that it’s difficult not to place fault at least partly at Euronymous’ feet.
Kilmer has a smaller part, but anyone who’s dealt with depression and/or suicidal thoughts will recognize his struggle. Likewise, Valter Skarsgård (how many more Skarsgårds are there… seriously?) makes an impression as Faust, a hanger-on who was part of another legendary metal band, Emperor. It’s a veritable sausage fest, meaning the women get predictably short shrift (Sky Ferreira probably didn’t need to get completely naked, for example), but it kind of makes sense within the context of the time.
A scene where Euronymous’s sister dyes his hair is sweetly funny, though, and highlights the impact Mayhem’s dark deeds would have on those that really cared about them.
The band, and their buddies, all seemingly came from relatively normal backgrounds — especially Varg, whose mother is apparently quite wealthy. His home is white and bright, in stark contrast to his black pentagram jacket, which he straps on like armor before going out to fight for his place with Euronymous and the others. There’s no trauma or abuse to speak of, nothing to suggest these kids couldn’t have just got on with things and been happy making music, drinking beer and hanging out.
The script — co-written by Åkerlund and Dennis Magnusson, and based off the book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind — is tight, sharp and witty. The kids at the heart of the movie are frequently the unintentional victims of their own moody pronouncements, particularly when Euronymous intones that “all this evil and dark crap was supposed to be fun.” His voice-over could have been clunky or annoyingly expository, but it’s used as a constant source of humor.
Lords of Chaos is a surprisingly funny film, given its subject matter. There’s a great running joke about Varg demanding to be called by his real name (“My name is VARG!,” he whines), and the final line of the movie is an expertly-timed indictment of everything that’s come before. Someone even says “you’ve gone too far” way too early. Also, the music itself isn’t terrible, though this may be because Åkerlund purposely kept the black metal to a minimum to protect the delicate ears of newcomers.
This is a story about a band, but it’s also a cutting indictment of male ego and the futility, and consequences, of fighting to be the most “hardcore.” Varg then, as now, is too much of a true believer, but he uses Euronymous’ arrogance against him. He bullies him into pushing things to a breaking point (somehow, the denouement is even rougher when you know what’s coming). Åkerlund, for his part, doesn’t glamorize the violence either. It’s rough, gory and keenly felt. He shoots head on, without cutting away to offer respite.
If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that Lords of Chaos might play messily to those unfamiliar with the great Mayhem myth. Although Åkerlund creates a compelling narrative, certain events will seem random to the uninitiated. However, this is a minor quibble in a fascinating, incisive and impressively humorous retelling of the most infamous band in history (bearing in mind it still isn’t the full story, of course).
By its own admission, Lords of Chaos is absolutely not the way Mayhem, and particularly Varg, would have wanted this story told, and that makes it even sweeter. It’s a brutal, blistering watch, but more than just a glorifying band portrait, this is a damning and frequently frightening indictment of the dangers of young men competing to be the most hardcore, rebellious or “dark” in order to prove their masculinity.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.