Lords of Chaos tells one of those stories that would be easily dismissed as preposterous if it wasn't based on actual events. The film charts the creation of “Norwegian black metal” music. If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, don't give up just yet. The story of the people who brought this music into the world is alternately amusing, scary, and horrifying. One need not be into this particular musical genre to get wrapped up in the psychology behind it.
Rory Culkin plays Oystein Aarseth (a.k.a. “Euronymous”), the leader of the heavy metal band Mayhem. To gain publicity, he pushes a satanic image. His motto: “When people hear our music, we want them to commit suicide.” He hires a singer named “Dead” (Jack Kilmer) with a penchant for self-mutilating onstage. It's a perfect match for the band's style, but when Dead gruesomely kills himself, the symbiosis is a little too perfect.
Left without a singer, Euronymous moves into running his own record label, eventually signing a young performer named Kristian “Varg” Vikernes (Emory Cohen). Whereas all the death and darkness is a marketing hook for him, Varg takes it quite seriously, even going as far as burning down local churches so he can brag about how “evil” he is. Professional tensions build between the two, as Varg increasingly embraces the satanic image and later suspects that Euronymous isn't fairly compensating or crediting him for his work. Stuff gets dark for real when this happens.
Lords of Chaos draws you in with fascinating characterization. Euronymous is an opportunist who believes all this twisted stuff can be used to generate hype. He pretends not to care about commercial success when he really does. He also eggs everyone else on, never doing the really bad stuff himself. Varg, meanwhile, is somewhat naive. He really believes in the black metal scene and can't understand that for Euronymous it's mostly just a gimmick. In its own way, Lords of Chaos is about the unholy ways in which art and commerce can collide.
Director Jonas Akerlund – an accomplished music video director who has worked with everyone from Metallica to Taylor Swift – takes a slightly satiric approach to two-thirds of the film. This is very much a statement about how doom and gloom can be pre-packaged and sold to young people who want to pretend to be edgier than they really are. Akerlund exposes the poser quality that has always been part and parcel of death metal in any country. Coming up with shocking new things to do gives Euronymous an adrenaline boost. Getting a rise out of others provides a sense of power that's far more authentic than Mayhem's performance antics.
The last third of the movie shifts gears, as tensions between Euronymous and Varg rise dramatically, with significant consequences. Lords of Chaos suggests that you can only play at being morally unhinged for so long before you actually do become morally unhinged. At some point, the line blurs and you morph into your own self-created myth.
Anchored by strong work from Culkin and Cohen, Lords of Chaos is an engrossing look at the image-building that is essential to having a successful career in music. It is often funny and more than a little enlightening. Beyond that, it's a deeply disturbing psychological portrait of manipulation, ego, and vengeance. How the film skirted by with an R rating is a mystery; Dead's suicide and the violence at the end are among the most graphic imagery I've seen onscreen in a long time. The squeamish should beware.
That explicitness is necessary, though, to be true to the story – not just to the tale of Euronymous and Varg, but also to the overall theme. The thought of a black metal band known for professing a love of death and misery disintegrating into those very things is extremely apt. When you stare into the darkness for too long, the darkness starts staring right back. Even if you feel slightly unclean after seeing Lords of Chaos, its fearlessness in depicting the ramifications of this lifestyle is haunting and hypnotic.
out of four
Lords of Chaos is rated R for strong brutal violence, disturbing behavior, grisly images, strong sexuality, nudity, and pervasive language. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.