Lords of Chaos: A Shocking Shape-Shifter

The transition from MTV to the silver screen can be tough for music video directors looking to move into feature films. With this year’s disastrous Polar, Jonas Åkerlund appeared to signal that he was unable to move on from the three-minute hyperactive clips he’s been known for. Infantile, cheap-looking, faux-edgy, and unnecessarily gory, the film proved to be a shocking waste of talent (Mads Mikkelsen, Johnny Knoxville, and Vanessa Hudgens starred) and money for all involved. But mere months later, he’s returned with Lords of Chaos, an anomalous, shape-shifting biopic that breaks rules just as readily as it does bones.

50% Spinal Tap, 25% depressive drama, and 25% outright horror, calling Lords of Chaos a biopic actually feels like a bit of a misnomer. Bohemian Rhapsody certainly wouldn’t have warranted a poster outside the screening stating, ‘This film contains scenes of an extremely graphic nature’, nor a verbal warning of the same. Then again, Bohemian Rhapsody would have been very different if it’d involved an unbearably brutal suicide, two shocking, prolonged murders, at least four church burnings, and multiple distressing sequences of self-harm. If Freddie Mercury had been the star and victim of a snuff movie instead of a rock icon, then his biopic might have looked a bit like this one.

Jack Kilmer, Anthony De La Torre, Rory Culkin, and Jonathan Barnwell in Lords of Chaos

Based on ‘truth, lies, and what actually happened’ (it’s a riveting Wikipedia read), Rory Culkin stars as Euronymous, the founding member of early Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, and an influential figure in the metal scene. His motivations are unclear – spouting nonsense about satanism and the dogma of Christianity, Åkerlund suggests that, more than anything else, Euronymous is just bored. His middle-class, painfully standard family even fund his record store, sending a ‘good luck’ bouquet which he quickly hides under the table. Suburban, wealthy-kid ennui are, like in the stunning American Animals (with which this would make an astounding double bill), capable of breeding the sort of discontent, or at least feigning it, that leads to genuine harm.

Initially though, the homegrown band is pretty shit. Euronymous relies on musical critique from his pre-teen sister and asks her opinion of his pitch-black dyed hair. The message is clear: Mayhem are posers, with nothing to be angry about and an incoherent pre-Tumblr-and-emo ‘suicide and death’ philosophy which makes them look more childish than anything else. But the search for a vocalist changes all that when it unearths Jack Kilmer’s Dead, a startlingly blonde, even more startlingly depressed metalhead who prefaces his arrival in Norway by mailing a deceased, rotting rat nailed to a crucifix to the band.

Dead brings a truly unhinged, dangerous aspect to Mayhem’s live shows, huffing a bag containing dead birds, throwing severed pigs heads into the crowd, and in one particularly grisly scene, slitting his wrists over the faces of the audience. It’s not clear whether the way Euronymous looks over at him-mid performance signifies worry, fear, jealousy, or some mix of all three. It’s also after this distressing, climactic concert that the band is properly introduced to Varg (Emory Cohen), an overweight, awkward presence who teeters permanently on the edge of the exclusive black metal world, desperately trying to fit in. A surreal sequence of him sitting in his pristine, middle-class parents house eating toast whilst clad in corpsepaint is equal parts hilarious and profoundly tragic. Suffice to say, those aware of the sad, violent story of Mayhem will know that both Dead and Varg will pull the band in increasingly dangerous directions.

As with the previously mentioned American Animals, and Spike Lee’s incendiary BlackkklansmanLords of Chaos performs a dazzling act of tone-juggling that violates the traditional rules of screenwriting. For most of its first half, and a reasonable portion of its second, the film operates as a supremely ironic Spinal Tap riff, demonstrating the idiocy of its protagonists through their own self-serious declarations of ideology and brilliance. A particularly hilarious scene sees journalists invited to the darkened apartment of Varg, to receive anonymous admissions of guilt to murder and church burning. The journalists ridicule Varg’s appearance, his cringe-worthy display of ornate weapons and goat skulls, and his incoherent philosophy which claims to combine Norse mythology with anti-religious sentiment and Nazi-ism, but collapses at the lightest touch. “What a fucking idiot” the photographer says to the author as they walk to their car and both burst into laughter.

On the other hand, as anybody who’s seen Åkerlund’s nauseating Smack My Bitch Up clip knows, the director really knows how to shock. This film reminded me somewhat of Irreversible, and the way in which its infamously distressing scenes of rape and violence actually had the effect of making the film less problematic. The violence and crime in Lords of Chaos is, to put it lightly, sickening, but in a way that’s what makes it (barely) palatable. The story of Mayhem and the ‘black metal murders’ glow with a Manson-like aura of distaste, and displaying it in any way that could be described as ‘entertaining’ would be practically inviting condemnation. Ironically, the extent to which the band members tear themselves and each other apart would be criticised in a completely fictional tale as excessive or almost comically unrealistic, but in sticking to the story Åkerlund is able to make his material queasily realistic. Just be warned: I doubt there’ll be a more shockingly violent release in 2019.

With the odd, celebrity-related and mostly unknown cast Åkerlund has assembled, one might predict ham acting. Rory Culkin is the brother of Macaulay, Jack Kilmer is the son of Val, Valter Skarsgård is the son of Stellan and the brother of Bill, and Sky Ferreira is, first and foremost, a pop star – it’s hard not to believe that Åkerlund purposefully chose faces that have uncanny resemblances to those we know so well from pop culture, not from film. But the calibre of performances on show is ridiculously high. The nuances of this story – when the characters do or don’t believe in the ideologies they’re espousing at any given moment – is conveyed almost solely by facial expression, so it’s remarkable that it all comes through the acting.

That said, the script can be at times unbearably cheesy. Lines such as “You claimed to be true Norweigan black metal…. and now you betray it” and “that’s me, a normal teenager you might think…. But you couldn’t be more wrong” left me squirming in my seat like a tortoise shrinking into its shell. For the Hunter S. Thompson fans out there, too, Rory Culkin’s portrayal of Euronymous bites a little too close to the author – especially Johnny Depp’s portrayal in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Åkerlund certainly has an eye for MTV/early Vice-esque visuals, and Lords of Chaos excels with its frenetic, scuzzy, music video feel that occasionally breaks out into big-screen cinematic bliss. The director clearly relishes filming his church burning scenes (after all, what’s more cinematic than a burning church), shooting one in particularly atmospheric and creepy slow motion. Towards the end of the picture, as well, he shoots for outright horror, switching into frenetic hallucinatory montages and a handful of horribly effective jumpscares for what proves to be a particularly memorable closing act. Editing is, of course, absolutely top-notch and on supreme anarcho-comic form (take note, Adam Mackay).

Eventually, Lords of Chaos pushes towards something which could be called poignancy. In its final frames, splattered with blood and drenched in tragedy, the circles orbiting Mayhem and the band itself finally realise just how far they’ve wandered in the wrong direction; even the audience, the moralising force of reason, is given a sharp reality check by Culkin’s narration. Unlike the typical biopic, Åkerlund refuses to give us the usual ‘what happened next’ pre-credits postscript, and instead fades straight to black. I turned to the person next to me and said “I feel sick”.


Lords of Chaos is released in the UK on March 29th

James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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