In 1984, a young Norwegian guitarist named Øystein Aarseth (Rory Culkin) took the stage name Euronymous and formed a black metal band named Mayhem. Not so surprising, perhaps, since metal is extremely popular in Scandinavia, and Mayhem went on to become an influential band. For people outside the metal scene, however, Mayhem are far better known for their involvement in a quite un-Norwegian crime wave that included the burning of historical churches and several murders. Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos, with a screenplay by Åkerlund and Dennis Magnusson (adapted from a book of the same name by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind), offers a straightforward telling of the story of Mayhem as narrated by Euronymous.
The irony of the enduring appeal of black metal, with its severed pig’s heads and upside-down-crosses and screeching vocals, to a population of well-off and well-cared-for young people is not lost on Åkerlund. The band is first seen rehearsing in the pleasant suburban home where Euronymous lives with his family (it even has a Volvo in the driveway!), where his little sister tells them, in so many words: “You guys suck!” When they move to a separate rehearsal space, it’s in a comfortable barn surround by idyllic fields. They don’t have much to rebel against, and the contrast makes them appear a bit ridiculous, but it’s all in good fun, and most of those in the scene know the difference between play-acting violence on stage and hurting people in real life.
Unfortunately, not everyone involved with the band has that gift. Their singer Per (Jack Kilmer), who goes by the name of “Dead,” shows he’s ready to take things further by cutting his arm open for real during a concert. He’s clearly a disturbed person, whose hobby is killing cats and who invites Euronymous to shoot him at point blank range. Euronymous refuses (again, he knows the distinction between talking a big game and actually causing harm) but it’s not long before Dead brings himself to a very gruesome end. His suicide is presented quite graphically by Åkerlund, but that’s entirely appropriate because a violent death should look horrifying on screen.
A new band member with an even weaker moral compass soon joins the band: Christian (Emory Cohen), who goes by the name Varg. Mayhem likes to present themselves as anti-Christians (the upside-down cross formed part of the band’s logo), and Varg has the bright idea of taking it further by actually burning down historic churches. “Taking it further” is the key concept here, because while Euronymous is partly repelled by this wanton destruction, he’s also a bit jealous of the street cred that Varg is gaining thereby. As the historical record shows, vandalism on buildings was followed by vandalism on people, leading to several deaths, and they are presented as gruesomely as was Dead’s suicide.
You don’t have to be a metal fan to enjoy Lords of Chaos, because Åkerlund’s interest lies primarily in the psychology of these young musicians (they were in their teens or early twenties when the events in question took place) and the social milieu surrounding them. Åkerlund knows both well, as he was a founding member of the black metal band Bathory before moving into his current specialty as a director of music videos and films (Madonna’s “Ray of Light” and Paul McCartney’s “Live Kisses” among them). Lords of Chaos is also a strikingly beautiful film, as Åkerlund shows that he knows how to capture distinctive visuals whether a scene takes place on stage or off. | Sarah Boslaugh
Lords of Chaos is distributed by Gunpowder & Sky. After appearing on the festival circuit, the film is receiving a limited release in theatres beginning Feb. 8 and will be available for streaming beginning Feb. 22.