The story of the early black metal scene in Norway is as much about violence and criminal activity as it is about music, and director and co-writer Jonas Åkerlund attempts to capture that dichotomy, to mixed effect, in his biopic Lords of Chaos, which focuses on pioneering black metal band Mayhem. The story of Mayhem eventually ended in murder, with founder Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth stabbed to death by fellow musician Kristian “Varg” Vikernes, but Åkerlund treats the saga like an extended joke, giving Euronymous (Rory Culkin) a snarky running voiceover from beyond the grave, and portraying the musicians’ various crimes as goofy heavy metal posturing taken too far. That’s amusing at first, when suburban teenager Euronymous is attempting to project an image of Satanic menace while living at home with his parents and pestered by his annoying little sister. But when the story grows to encompass suicide, arson and murder, it’s a little harder to laugh at.
Åkerlund started his career as the drummer for the Swedish black metal band Bathory just a few years before Lords of Chaos takes place, so he has a strong connection to the music, but the movie barely pays any attention to Mayhem’s musical innovations, even though the band is one of the most influential in the history of heavy metal. Instead, Åkerlund focuses on the personal relationships, first between Euronymous and troubled singer Per “Dead” Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), and later between Euronymous and Varg (Emory Cohen).
Although Euronymous talks big, he lacks follow-through on his revolutionary pronouncements. Dead is the one who takes Mayhem’s stage show to the next morbid level, throwing severed pig heads into the audience and cutting himself so that he literally bleeds on the crowd. He’s as disturbed as he is talented, and his final gift to the band is a messy suicide that Euronymous photographs before calling the authorities (a photo of Dead’s corpse eventually ended up as the cover to a bootleg Mayhem live album).
If Dead is more willing to suffer for his art, then Varg is all about making others suffer. First introduced as a Mayhem fan, he’s soon hanging around Euronymous’ record store in Oslo and recording music for his solo project, Burzum, to be released on Euronymous’ record label. He’s also clearly a disturbed sociopath, and Cohen plays him with a constant quiet menace that makes him appear ready to strike at any moment. Varg takes Euronymous’ anti-Christian tirades and turns them into an arson spree, burning down churches all over Norway. Although he officially joins Mayhem as the band’s bassist, his own music threatens to overtake Mayhem’s place as the standard-bearers for “true Norwegian black metal.”
While Euronymous is sort of passive-aggressive in his annoyance at Varg, wary of revealing his insecurities, Varg becomes increasingly sadistic, bullying other members of the black metal scene until he gets what he wants. The portrayal of the characters as petulant whiners who don’t understand the consequences of their actions is only partially effective, and Åkerlund never quite gets a handle on whether Euronymous is a well-meaning idealist or a calculated provocateur or just a clueless weirdo in over his head.
Culkin’s performance is so subdued that the protagonist often fades into the background, and his relationships with supporting characters including a girlfriend played by Sky Ferreira and various headbanger hangers-on (many of whose roles in the scene are unclear) lack any emotional depth. Even Euronymous’ connection with Dead, which Åkerlund flashes back to with greater frequency as the movie goes on, seems like forced thematic shorthand rather than a truly meaningful friendship.
It’s easy to scoff at these guys in their ridiculous outfits and ghoulish face paint, especially when the movie fails to convey their significant musical talent. But as the story turns darker, more churches burn and the violent acts escalate, the tone falters. The climactic murder scene is almost gratuitously brutal, but its impact is muted because the movie doesn’t seem to take these people seriously. Åkerlund seems to be aiming for the incredulous “can you believe this stuff actually happened?” tone of sardonic true-crime movies like I, Tonya or Pain & Gain, but he mostly misses the mark. The real story is indeed so wild as to be almost unbelievable, but Lords of Chaos is content to smirk at it rather than deliver any genuine insight.