The Pitch: The long-gestating, loosely-built film adaptation of the 1997 nonfiction book Lords of Chaos, about the rise of Norwegian black metal, is finally here. Directed by former Bathory drummer and current music video impresario Jonas Åkerlund, this overlong and overwrought mess doesn’t shy away from the uglier side of this scene (multiple church burnings, murders, animal abuse), but seems more interested in mocking the music and its makers than seeking to understand either.
Feeble Screams From Forests Unknown: Åkerlund and his co-writer Dennis Magnusson set a tone of not-so-gentle mockery early in the film, some of it entirely earned. Øystein Aarseth, aka Euronymous, guitarist and founder of black metal band Mayhem (played by Rory Culkin), is portrayed as a somewhat confused middle-class kid practicing his extreme music in the family basement and kidding with his baby sister about Satan. He’s also presented as an opportunist, unwilling to go to the extremes that some of his bandmates and friends will, but more than happy to reap the benefits and take the credit. When Mayhem’s early singer takes his own life, a troubled young man who went by Dead onstage, Euronymous holds off on calling the police, instead taking a snapshot of the dead body to use as the cover art for a bootleg. And when members of his so-called “black circle” start committing actual crimes, Euronymous insists it was at his behest.
A Long Forgotten Sad Spirit: These real-life figures are treated as caricatures throughout Lords of Chaos because, in most cases, that’s how they really acted. Euronymous and the folks in his circle slathered their faces in corpse paint and harrassed passersby, reveling in the excessive volume and punishing energy of their chosen genre. Drinking and making outrageous statements were the norm. But the filmmakers almost entirely bypass the allure of metal and the complexity and virtuosity that lives within even its most outlandish subgenres.
It’s only in one scene at a Mayhem show that the music is given its due. The five-minute stretch of film makes great use of editing, highlighting the gargantuan thrust of a Mayhem song and the almost baptismal moment when Dead slices his arms open and sprays willing kids near the stage with his blood. Otherwise, the music is almost a background character, a soundtrack and excuse for the evil deeds soon to come.
Lost Wisdom: Things turn quickly ugly after that with the introduction of Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen), another lost soul who latches onto Euronymous and starts taking all the anti-establishment chatter to its farthest ends. It’s Varg who starts burning down churches and adopting a grislier persona, which doesn’t land far from the real Varg, who released music as Burzum and is now primarily a white supremacist YouTuber. Cohen does a decent job revealing the scared kid hiding underneath the long hair and bomb making, yet he goes somehow too big throughout. The tense, competitive, and yet strangely loving relationship between Varg and Euronymous gives Cohen too much fuel to overplay the former’s hand, especially in the climactic confrontation the pair have near the end of the film.
Even worse is the portrayal of a crucial incident in the mythmaking of the early Norwegian black metal scene: the killing of a homosexual man in a park in Lillehammer at the hands of Bård Eithun, the drummer for Emperor who went by the name Faust. A former bandmate explained it this way in the pages of Lords of Chaos: “I guess he wanted to know what it’s like to kill a person … I think that was basically the reason for him doing it.” In the film, however, the implication is made that Eithun was solicited by his victim and acted out of some kind of repressed guilt over his own desires. It’s already a gruesome enough scene, without that misguided attempt to apply a sense of perspective and logic behind the killing.
Cursed In Eternity: Nearly everything else filling out the corners and edges of Lords of Chaos is baffling. There are almost no women of any kind in the film, outside of Ann-Marit (played with endearing uncertainty by Sky Ferreira), Euronymous’ scenester girlfriend, and an array of nameless ladies that Varg beds and dismisses. The filmmakers also chose to have Euronymous narrate the entire film a la Sunset Boulevard, using an obnoxious combination of winking irony and puffed up swagger. And there are the odd aesthetic choices, like using Sigur Ros tunes to provide the dramatic score and letting the almost entirely American cast use their native accents. Compressing the history of these artists for a clean, direct storyline is one thing; indifference to verisimilitude is another.
The Verdict: Lords of Chaos can’t seem to find its center for the entirety of its indulgent two-hour runtime. From moment to moment, the mood shifts from comic to dramatic to horrific to exploitative (cue the scene where Varg, apropos of nothing, demands that Ann-Marit disrobe, and she does without a second thought). Audiences are meant to ultimately roll their eyes at the people on screen, and feel a strain of pity at the potential wasted and the would-be redemption story halted in its tracks.
Åkerlund sticks to biopic formula of simplifying and condensing the history of this budding scene with hopes of attract a general audience (at least as general an audience as a straight to VOD release can hope to find). But what he and this film both ignore almost completely is how popular metal of all shapes and sizes remains to this day. Instead of courting that audience, or trying to find some middle ground where he celebrates the music while rightfully disparaging the actions of some of its worst figureheads, he punches down with a smirk and dismisses the birth of a genre as the product of misspent youth.
Where’s It Playing? Limited theaters starting February 8th, and VOD on February 22nd.