Review: Lords of Chaos

It may seem petty to start this review with the observation that it sure feels odd that a movie which concerns itself, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek expressionistic sort of way, with a true life crime is in a language that is not native to the country it depicts. Of course, Hollywood has been Anglicizing stories since its inception, but Lords of Chaos presents a Norwegian director helming a Norwegian production set in Norway that tackles a story which took place in Bergen and Oslo in the early 90s, and yet all the dialogue is in English and most of the cast is American speaking in typical American vernacular. Of course, since Vice is one of the backers, there was probably international distribution considerations behind the decision, but whatever prompted that decision has resulted in a movie that takes the piss every which way but up.

First of all, the lead is played by Rory Culkin, who has recently been catapulted to international fame as the snarkiest of the rich brood of media capitalists in the HBO series Succession. To his credit, that character does not rear his head at all in his portrayal of Euronymous, the self-styled inventor of Norwegian black metal, a hard rock sub-genre that would require a flow chart and an expert to distinguish it from, say, death metal, speed metal, etc. In the opening voiceover, director Jonas Akerlund juxtaposes Euronymous’s iconoclastic but humorously self-aware world view (“people are supposed to hate what I do”) with his passive middle class existence. When he mentions that life in Norway is horrifically boring, he hits on Akerlund’s theme, which is that black metal, a musical expression of nihilism, sprang from Norway’s storied social cohesion. When the government makes it possible for you to live your life without economic anxiety, you have to make your own tension, and Euronymous’s is to seek succor in death, though, to be honest, his response is cynical rather than nihilistic. He advances black metal as a means of thumbing his nose at society and sees his mission as more of a marketer of outrageous content than as a prophet of the dark arts. 

Basically, the movie’s dramatic arc follows this mission to its inevitable tragic end. Euronymous plays lead guitar in a bad metal band called Mayhem, and an ad for a lead singer produces Pelle (Jack Kilmer, son of Val, in case you were wondering), who nicknames himself Dead and likes to open his veins onstage during performances. However, his suicidal rage is not an act, and eventually he kills himself in a spectacular manner, but rather than be disturbed Euronymous, at least outwardly, sees Pelle’s death as a PR opportunity since in death Pelle manifests the central thesis of black metal. Mayhem attracts a more dedicated fan base, including a young “poser” named Christian (Emory Cohen), whom Euronymous takes on first as an acolyte and then as a bandmate, though Christian, after adopting the moniker Varg, starts his own musical project called Burzum, which quickly outstrips Mayhem in terms of dedication to the tenets of black metal. Varg is a true believer in a way that Euronymous isn’t, and burns down a church to prove it. Euronymous and his “black circle” of followers approves, but Varg quickly realizes it is Euronymous who is the poser, since he seems set on following the conventional road to rock stardom, an ambition Varg thinks is antithetical to black metal dogma. 

For the most part, this is a well thought-out explication of the true story behind Burzum and Mayhem that resulted in a string of arsons and murders which shocked Norway, but Akerlund doesn’t really know how to direct it. Genre-wise, the movie slots as a horror film—the scenes involving actual death are drawn out beyond their acceptable limits and, set against the almost Spinal Tap level of self-parody that rules the rest of the scenes, verge on the sickening. There is one brilliant scene in which Varg invites a journalist to hear his confessions of criminality. The journalist, unimpressed and incredulous, catches Varg out on his ignorance of religion and paganism, but understands a sensational story when he hears it. Unfortunately, Akerlund can’t maintain this ironic tone, and the movie descends into slasher territory without much in the way of insight into a sub-culture it can only address superficially. Caveat: if you plan to come for the music, be warned there isn’t really much of it. 

Opens March 26 in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

Lords of Chaos home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2018 Fox Vice Film Holdings, LLC and Vice Media LLC

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