Lords of Chaos (2018)

Lords of Chaos first published by Sight & Sound, May 2019

Review: “Based”, as introductory text states, “on truth, lies, and what actually happened”, and adapted by Dennis Magnusson and director Jonas Åkerlund (Spun, 2002; Polar, 2019) from Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s 2003 book of the same name on the early Norwegian black metal scene, Lords of Chaos has been a long time coming. Originally Sion Sono (Love Exposure, 2008; Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, 2013) was set to direct a (different) adaptation of the book in 2009 – in what would have been the Japanese maverick’s first English-language film – and now one can only imagine what his version might have been like. 

Åkerlund’s film is preoccupied with alternative reality: specifically, the confused subcultural cocoon of black metal, Satanism, Paganism and Nazism into which several young Norwegian males immerse themselves as part of an adolescent rebellion against the cosy Christian conservatism all around them. For protagonist and narrator Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth (Rory Culkin), a determinedly middle-class Oslo kid, these egregious countercultural displays are all just talk and posturing, calculated, along with the record store that daddy bought him, to place him at the very centre of his long-haired, black-clad peer group. Øystein makes a cult of death, using its imagery to advance his own dubious edgelord credibility, and even cynically exploiting the suicide of his band Mayhem’s disturbed, self-destructive Swedish singer Per ‘Dead’ Ohlin (Jack Kilmer) to promote an album. There is, however, an obvious disconnect between Øystein’s fantasy glorifications of death and its grubbier reality. Åkerlund stresses this gulf by graphically showing actual deaths – starting with Per’s – in all their prolonged bloody banality. 

‘Poser’ is a word that recurs frequently in Lords of Chaos, and is indeed the very last word heard in the film. It is used by Øystein and his coterie as an insult against anyone outside their exclusive ‘Black Circle’ – yet the very term intended to bond these young men in their outsider authenticity in fact applies more to them (with their false names, elaborate makeup and all-round insincerity) than to anyone else. Øystein’s imposture serves him well until rival Kristian ‘Varg’ Vikernes (Emory Cohen) calls his bluff and acts on his empty words, burning down a church. Quickly their unhealthy competition spirals into a spree of antisocial crimes, more unholy combustions and even cold-blooded murder. As Øystein sees his nonsensical ideology converted to infernal reality, he is unable to get away from his own self-serving mythology, and so is ultimately, tragicomically consumed by it. 

Always ironised by Øystein’s voiceover – right down to the closing monologue which proves that a manchild’s braggadocio and self-aggrandisement die hard – Lords of Chaos turns a series of horrific real-life events into diabolically funny rites of passage. Here a toxic brand of masculine insecurity is skewered on its own destructive idiocy – and if the characters’ insatiable appetites for notoriety are superficially distanced by the film’s setting in the late Eighties and early Nineties, they regain currency from their similarity to all manner of behaviours visible online today.

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Synopsis: Norway, 1987. Having invented ‘the real Norwegian black metal’, 19-year-old guitarist Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth invites Swedish singer Per ‘Dead’ Ohlin to join his band Mayhem. A disturbed, death-fixated depressive, Per drives the audience wild by bloodily cutting his forearms onstage during a 1991 performance, and later, messily commits suicide. Discovering the body, Euronymous poses it for promotional photos and spreads a rumour that the band tasted Dead’s brains. 

Øystein opens record store Helvete, where he hangs out with metal musicians in an exclusive ‘Black Circle’. Solo artist Kristian ‘Varg’ Vikernes works his way into the group with both his raw talent and his willingness to act on the posturing nonsense that Øystein utters, and is soon recording an album on Øystein’ label. Kristian burns several churches down, and soon, in a game of oneupmanship, Øystein is reluctantly joining him. Approached by a gay man, circle member Bård Guldvik ‘Faust’ Eithun stabs him to death. Paranoid about police interest and cut off financially by his father, Øystein closes the store. After giving an interview in which he anonymously ascribes the crimes to the Black Circle, Kristian is arrested – and then released. Angry, Øystein boasts to Circle members that he is going to kill Kristian – but instead he just wants to be free of Kristian’s influence, and offers a contract returning all Kristian’s musical rights to him. Paranoid, Kristian confronts Øystein in his Oslo apartment and stabs him multiple times, fatally. In posthumous voiceover, Øystein regrets nothing. 

strap: Jonas Åkerlund’s feature reanimates Norway’s black metal scene as a satanic rite of passage for adolescent masculinity gone awry.

© Anton Bitel