Sundance Film Festival
Heavy metal has, like most popular music genres, gone through some pretty wild transmutations since its creation. Simply saying you like “metal” seems absurdly broad. There is a theatricality to the genre that is part of the attraction for fans, but Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos looks at what happened when the Norwegian black metal scene curdled into something genuinely deadly, and manages to do it with more humor, style, and humanity than I would have guessed possible.
When I was young, metal and punk were both important to me because they were a release, rebellion in music form. I went to high school just outside of Tampa, and there was a huge local underground death metal scene. I was in TV production with half of the band Executioner. Kids my age had their own labels and their own albums, recorded and released locally, and you could go pick up their albums at Peaches Records and Tapes just like the new one from Iron Maiden. When a band like Maiden would play town, a local band like the comically inept Savatage would open for them. The punk scene in Ybor City was wild and robust, and local bands played right alongside touring acts. There was an authenticity and an energy to all of it, which was part of the appeal. It was my music. My parents hated it and that only made it better.
Authenticity is a key issue for Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth (Rory Culkin) as he struggles to get his band Mayhem started in the mid-‘80s. They don’t want to be a metal band; they want to be the metal band. They want to be famous for being so terrifying and so extreme that parents destroy their records and warn their children away from them. After a few false starts, Mayhem comes together with “Dead” Ohlin (Jack Kilmer) on vocals, Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud (Jonathan Barnwell) on the bass, Aarseth on guitar, and Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg (Anthony De La Torre) on drums. They live together in a house in the woods, and they do everything together. Dead is a late discovery, but as soon as Euronymous hears him and starts hanging around him, it’s clear that Dead is not playing around. He is unbalanced, seriously attracted to the smell and taste of death, and unafraid to hurt himself on stage as part of his act. Euronymous recognizes that Dead gives off a doomed air, and he leans into it, encouraging it, even as he loves their growing infamy.
Then Dead cuts his own throat and blows his head off.
Up to that point, there’s a shaggy, amiable charm to the film, and that’s what is so crafty about what screenwriters Dennis Magnusson and Åkerlund have done with Michael Moynihan’s book. Up till now, most of what I’ve seen or read about the entire Norwegian black metal scene has been written in a way that romanticized the scene and leaned into the “real evil” of it all. Don’t get me wrong… there were terrible things done by these guys… but the film is not afraid to point at them and say, “They’re kind of ridiculous, and they’re just kids who were trying to sell records at first, and Satan doesn’t have anything to do with this.” When Dead kills himself, instead of shutting down the band, Euronymous decides to exploit it. He photographs the body. He encourages rumors that he ate some of Dead’s brain, that the band wears necklaces made of his skull, that they all drank a stew made from his body. And when Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen) finally introduces himself to Euronymous, he is a fanboy who believes wholeheartedly in the image they’ve been selling, which seems fine at first.
Emory Cohen has given several good performances before now in films like Brooklyn and Hot Summer Nights and The Place Beyond The Pines, but I think it’s safe to say this is his first great performance. “Varg” is what Euronymous calls a “poser” when he first shows up on the fringe of everything. He’s got a Scorpions patch on his denim jacket, for god’s sake. Euronymous keeps him around because it’s nice to see how much of an impact Mayhem has on people. It feeds his ego. By this point, he’s purchased a record store that he named Helvete (which is, of course, “Hell” in Norwegian) which has a stone cellar that he decorates as his special “dark chapel.” It’s all super-serious, and more than anything, Varg wants to be at the center of it. He listens to the way Euronymous talks, the hodge-podge of shock philosophies (a little bit of Satan, a dash of Hitler, a spritz of Communism), and he sees it as a real call to action, not the costume the band wears onstage. Euronymous constantly seems to be trying to find the line. How far can he go? One of the reasons Dead’s suicide affects him so deeply is because it is “real” in a way that Euronymous knows he can’t be. Instead, he talks this big game, making up this evil fantasy world that he controls. And Varg, unfortunately, can’t be controlled once he’s in motion. Euronymous does too good a job, and watching the way Cohen plays the transformation from clueless poser to genuine wrecking ball, he’s amazing.
Åkerlund knows that when there is violence in the film, he can’t play it for laughs, and he can’t undersell it. There’s a running bit in the film where someone’s always watching Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive’s goriest moments, and it’s played so big and broad that it’s clear that it’s meant to be silly. When the film gets to some of the most difficult moments in the true story, Åkerlund works very hard to make sure that you feel every bit of the violence as an invasion, an affront. There was a guy named Faust (played here by Valter Skarsgård) who stabbed a homosexual man who propositioned him, and Åkerlund includes all 37 of the stab wounds, and he makes sure you’re close, that you feel them like a physical punch on the soundtrack, and that he shows you what happens as the lungs and the spine and his stomach are all punctured. It is brutal and unflinching, and all of a sudden, nothing about the film is fun. There is a clear ethical choice that Åkerlund has made in terms of how he shows these events, and I respect where he stands on it. He knows that there are still people who read about all of this and they think of Mayhem as the most legitimately metal band possible because of how horrible the story is by the end of things. Euronymous got what he wanted. He got infamy. They set the bar very high for other bands who wanted to project an evil image. After all, Varg started burning down churches all over the country, some of them over a thousand years old. Between that and Faust’s murder, Euronymous starts to realize that he’s helped create something that he can’t control at all, something that is real, something that has teeth and blades and a real fury.
I admire the way the film plays with the conventions of the “rise and fall of a rock band” movie, and it’s well-cast across the board. More than anything, I admire the way it deflates the mythology that somehow always attaches itself to death. Euronymous wanted to use death, to ride death, to cloak himself in it so he could be famous, but he underestimated its hunger, and in the end, the scene was too outrageous to persist. It depended on a sense of one-upsmanship that was dangerous and, in the end, fatally destructive. It is a hard film, and many audiences will not be able to handle the unflinching honesty of the violence, but it is a clear-eyed film, and a huge step forward from his debut film Spun. Here’s hoping the wait for Åkerlund’s next does not take as long.
Running time: 112 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic