A terrifically sympathetic Rory Culkin and the most brutal knife-action outside of South Korean cinema add to the experience.
Reality and perception rarely share the same space, and that’s due mostly to the sad fact that human beings are deceptive by their very nature. Whether to hide something from others or to give an intentionally false impression, we’re not prone to being open books for friends and strangers alike to pry through. And to that end, we can’t truly be judged or understood by our covers alone.
Øystein Aarseth, aka Euronymous, (Rory Culkin) doesn’t seem all that imposing a figure despite his black clothes, blacker hair, and claims that he’s here to “cause chaos and suffering” throughout early 90s Norway. As leader of the band Mayhem he hitches their hope for success on his creation of “true Norwegian Black metal,”and the world — well, their world anyway — takes notice. His nihilistic talk about bringing down organized religion and government is challenged by the band’s newest member, Varg (Emory Cohen), who thinks there should be action behind the rhetoric. Arson, vandalism, and murder follow, and while Euronymous tries to enjoy their success and live his life he quickly finds both goals in question.
If the story sounds vaguely familiar it’s because Lords of Chaos is based on the “truth and lies” behind real events that shook both the people of Norway and the Black metal community of fans and performers. Interviews, police reports, and creative license combine in director/co-writer Jonas Åkerlund‘s terrifically entertaining look at the triumphs and tragedies of young people in search of themselves.
Euronymous narrates the film and leads viewers through his ambitious efforts to build something new, and we watch as he does just that. His first big break comes with the graphically-presented suicide of Mayhem’s mysterious lead singer, Per Yngve “Dead” Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), and his own gruesome response, but like the rest of what follows we’re wise to question the motivations of the one telling the story. The real truth and the perceived truth aren’t always the same, and while there’s tragedy and pathos to the tale at hand the film is just as interested in the themes woven through the facts and lies. These young men display a desire to stand apart from the crowd and be noticed, and even as they achieve those goals it’s not always in the way they envisioned.
It’s an incredibly dark story, but Åkerlund and co-writer Dennis Magnusson present the death-filled imagery, ideas, and dialogue with such gloriously energetic life to the point that we’re unprepared for its grimmest moments. Like the recent I, Tonya, it gives us people at their lowest even as we’re encouraged to laugh with them at the absurdity of it all. We’re dropped into a harsh world with humor and personality, but through it all the film’s working to ensure the audience finds empathy with our guide, Euronymous. It ultimately lends an affecting weight to what looks on the surface to be just another black comedy. Once again, we’ve been deceived by an appearance.
Åkerlund’s filmography consists mostly of music videos and concert films, but he did direct 2009’s bleak but underrated Dennis Quaid-led thriller, Horsemen. He carries over some darkly stylistic touches, but it’s clear he wields a more controlled grasp when the script allows room to breathe and laugh between the grotesque antics. His cast feels equally at home in their roles with Culkin and Cohen delivering an increasingly compelling pair of friends turned enemies. Cohen becomes terrifying in his conviction even as glimpses of doubt and humanity crack his exterior, and Culkin sells viewers on the image and product while remaining a charismatic nice guy underneath.
It’s unclear how much Lords of Chaos gets right factually speaking and how much is “movie magic,” and true Norwegian Black metal fans will have to decide for themselves if they’re represented fairly and accurately. But viewers new to this world who are simply looking for a funny, violent, and affecting tale of madness, murder, and good times will not be disappointed.
[Note: Our review originally ran during Sundance 2018.]