I honestly thought about skipping the theatrical release of Lords of Chaos, but when it arrived here on Friday, February 15th at the Alamo Drafthouse for its opening night showing, I figured what the hell. After all in December of 2009 I went to see Until The Light Takes Us at another Alamo Drafthouse, and there’s something about pecan porters and Belgian white ales and black metal films that just goes so well together. I had bought and read the book of course, way back when it first hit American bookstore shelves in the late 90’s and I poured over every page, only later to find out through various sources that a lot of the book was in dispute by those who were its subjects. Mostly Varg, but I recall reading a lot of criticism from the Mayhem camp, as well side figures like Ihsahn, Samoth, and Satyr who seemed to be outside the “inner circle” but close enough to know what was likely true and outright fabrication. As a result, I held a lot of prejudices against the book for quite some time (and to be honest still do), particularly in the overblown sensationalist aspect of propping up satanism as the central theme. I think it was a decade ago plus when we first started hearing that it would be turned into a film, and my primary thought beyond “that will never get made” was that the only way it could be any good is if it departed from the book in a meaningful way and attempted a more honest portrayal.
Cue Jonas Akerlund, probably the only director who was meant to handle a project like this, not only for his very brief stint in Bathory, but for the connection he’s maintained to metal in general even throughout his years directing videos for pop stars. Before the film started, well before the coming attractions, various music videos and strange film shorts by Akerlund were being played on the big screen, including his gritty video for Metallica’s “Turn The Page” and his glossier clip for Lady Gaga’s “John Wayne”. I wondered if they’d show his clip for Satyricon’s “Fuel For Hatred” considering its the only black metal band he’s done one for but no such luck. The Metallica clip was a good reminder of Akerlund’s tendencies though, a stark, unpolished bit of filmmaking through a humanist perspective. Its the struggle of a mom’s transient lifestyle living out of hotel rooms while working at a strip club during the evenings and hooking long after her daughter has gone to sleep. This aggressively hyper-realist perspective also informed his video for The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”, where similarly the very ordinariness of the setting is a character in itself. In Lords of Chaos, there’s a moment when a domineering Varg barks at a young woman to disrobe, and its an uncomfortable, tension filled moment that is anything but sexy. She has a noticeable cyst that Akerlund makes sure viewers see, and the brightly lit room is quiet but for the sounds of a belt buckle hitting the floor after Varg growls “Are you deaf?” as he and Euronymous sit and watch.
This story is filled with ugliness and violence, and filmed without restraint in displaying that to the viewer. There’s the eerily distant manner in which we’re shown Dead’s suicide, without any emotional maneuvering via music, just a stark series of shots that show him sitting on the floor of his room slicing his wrists, forearms, and neck, stumbling to a desk to write a bloody suicide note as he’s gushing all over the place, and finally to his mattress where he sits against the wall, pulls the barrel of a gun to his head and fires without pause. Euronymous finding his body is a similarly disquieting sequence, the kind of reaction that seems rational and entirely illogical at once —- and when we come back to this later in the film, its surprisingly heartbreaking. Akerlund doesn’t glorify violence in the film, in fact his depiction of it is so upsetting that you’re wishing certain scenes didn’t linger as long as they did. When Faust is shown stabbing Magne Andreassen in Lillehammer Park, we seemingly see all 37 strikes he reportedly delivered, and its gruesome and terrible to take in. Worse yet is the final confrontation between Varg and Euronymous, a scene that is far more upsetting than I expected it to be, made worse not only for the sheer bloodiness, but for the senselessness of the whole thing. Akerlund’s style adds grit and grounding to all these depictions —- there are no action shots, nothing is remotely stylized, instead we get a single cam feel of someone simply recording actual violence happening mere feet from the lens. Its utterly disturbing.
All my reservations about the choice of cast and the decision to have them speak in English without any Norwegian accents in their speech were dispelled in the film’s first twenty minutes, when Rory Culkin’s surprisingly fantastic portrayal of Euronymous does the unlikely trick of charming the audience. I’m being serious. You can’t help but like Euronymous in this film, and I suspect that’s on purpose for the audience to forge some emotional connection onto a central character for plot purposes, but at the same time, you get the feeling that Øystein Aarseth hid a relatively decent person beneath the thick layers of angst, disaffection, and petulant jealousy. Akerlund splices in seemingly minor details to illustrate the point: Øystein’s affection for his little sister when she’s helping him color his hair black; his apparent love for a local kebab place he frequents so much that he knows the owner by name; laying on the couch next to his dad when his mother calls dinner (“spaghetti bolognese!”); the humorous exchange with a Norwegian postman he respectfully addresses; his relationship with girlfriend Ann-Marit (played by Sky Ferreira) where he allows for insecurity and vulnerability; and of course a handful of scattered moments where he attempts to deescalate the fallout resulting from his own provocations. Culkin nails playing both Øystein and Euronymous, his performance filled with subtlety in depicting what makes this young man essentially two personalities that sometimes merge, but in the films more emotionally resonant moments, repel away from one another in mutual disgust.
The casting turned out to be one of the film’s strongest aspects, with authentic feeling supporting turns from all the members of the inner circle, particularly Emory Cohen as Varg. I admit to feeling a moment of hesitation when he first appeared on screen, a dorky metalhead in a jean jacket with a Scorpions patch (man the Scorps got dragged through the mud in this movie) who gets the cold shoulder by an unimpressed Euronymous. But I quickly remembered that the earliest photos of Vikernes himself are pretty much exactly that, Akerlund did his homework here. Cohen’s presence gradually ebbs from uncertain and insecure to disturbingly confident, certain, and possessed. Vikernes will not be happy with his portrayal, but in reading interviews with Akerlund, most of the depictions came from knowledge gleaned from a variety of sources (in other words, not just the book), with the director citing Vikernes’ own statements as part of their source material. Vikernes has turned into an idiosyncratic narcissist in his later years as a YouTube celebrity, spreading his hate and racist diatribes for any impressionable goon to lionize, but he’s also been very specific about his perception of events and the way things went down, and to his chagrin, the film takes him at his word. There was no way for a guy like Vikernes to be portrayed as a hero, even when he’s telling Euronymous in the middle of a church they’re about to burn about what pagan sites stood at that spot before the Christians came. Remember this film screened at Cannes and Sundance, scores of non-metal audiences have seen this film who know nothing about black metal or its history or relevance —- they could probably see his point during that particular moment, he’s getting retribution in some way, but even that can’t redeem him from coming across as a maniacal sociopath.
This is ultimately a story about a group of young men and teenagers in a pre-internet world who become so involved with their own uniquely defined subculture that they began to get in over their heads in their attempts to stage rebellion against the traditional Christian Norwegian society they’ve grown up in. Within that framework, its a deeper story about the bonds of friendship and the forces that cause them to wither and tear apart. Akerlund juxtaposes Øystein’s strange but comradely kinship with Per Ohlin (Dead) versus his slowly decaying alliance with Varg, the former featuring some of the film’s best laughs (there are a few) while the latter crackles with a barely restrained tension. Euronymous cuts as mysterious and ambiguous a character onscreen as he seems to in black metal history where multiple accounts differ as to just who he was as Øystein. Watching the film, his likability was a strange thing for me to admit at first, because I could easily see why so many considered him egotistical, jealous and manipulative. In that respect he’s a mirror image of who Varg becomes, and two of those personalities could not co-exist in one clique. Despite that, there were hints at redemption for him —- subtle things that suggest he cares for his friends, worries over their well-being (even if that means at the expense of others), he even seems to know when its time to distance himself from everything altogether. I didn’t anticipate feeling a tinge of sadness at the end, but I did.
Now that Lords of Chaos is out in theaters, and those who hoped it would never be made have to live with its nagging presence, I hope most metal fans put aside their reservations and give it a shot. Its not a perfect film, there’s some awfully corny dialogue at times, the music is severely neglected, and some people might be put off by its schizophrenic shifts in tone. Yet despite those things, I think it should be stressed that the more people check this out and support it the more likely it is that we can have future metal related films, be they documentaries or biopics like this. All the criticism the recent Bohemian Rhapsody biopic received for being selective with the truth seems deserved, but they can’t level quite the same thing at Lords of Chaos. The former is a band approved vanity project aimed squarely at propagating their own magnificence with an audience that’s likely sympathetic at worst and die-hard fans at best. Akerlund’s film is an entirely different beast however, non-metal audiences don’t learn about why black metal is unique, how or why its different from death metal, they barely even get to hear what Mayhem sounds like —- instead they get a deeply disturbing, saddening tale that offers no answers in the way of virtue or morality. For us as metal fans who’ve known this story for seemingly ever now, we get a visualization of a slice of history we weren’t privy to ourselves. Let me be clear —- none of these guys were heroes or martyrs and don’t deserve to be treated as such, but its our history, we’re responsible for documenting it properly and processing it. Akerlund never stopped being a metal fan, and to the extent that Lords of Chaos is a fellow metalhead’s interpretation of this grim story, we should support it with the same enthusiasm we muster for new music or live shows, regardless of its Hollywood fingerprints.