The opening card of black metal crime thriller Lords of Chaos declares that the forthcoming movie is “based on truth… lies… and what actually happened”. It’s an enigmatic statement of intent for a bizarre and difficult movie about a strange, grotesque series of real events. Musician and renowned music video director Jonas Åkerlund has channelled the violent rise and fall of metal act Mayhem into a movie that is equal parts slasher movie, tale of youth in revolt and Satanic take on This is Spinal Tap.
Rory Culkin, younger brother of Macaulay and Kieran, portrays Euronymous – the founder and lead guitarist of Mayhem, as well as the pioneer of “true Norwegian black metal”. In a knowingly self-serious voiceover, he states that he was “brought into this world to create suffering, chaos and death” in just one of many lines that walk the tightrope between earnest teenage naivety and Spinal Tap parody. He recruits the troubled frontman Dead (Jack Kilmer) and the band soon achieves notoriety for out-there performances in which Dead cuts himself, spraying blood on to the front rows of the crowd. “We were world famous… all over Oslo,” says Euronymous.
Åkerlund doesn’t shy away from the grotesque, horrifying antics of the Mayhem band members and their bedfellows in the black metal scene of 1990s Norway. Kilmer’s Dead is a detached husk of a human, who seems to take joy in stopping to sniff a roadkill fox but feels nothing when he’s graphically injuring himself on stage. These scenes come thick and fast in the first act of the movie, but Åkerlund’s direction is so unflinching and horrible that any accusations of glorifying self-harm are quickly dispelled. One particularly horrific sequence, which those with knowledge of the true events will be expecting, is a stomach-turning viewing experience.
Indeed, this is true of all of the film’s violence – achieved with gallons of blood and disgustingly evocative sound design. There’s a clear contrast drawn between the performative, supposedly cool edge of these characters and the sheer, grubby horror of what happens when that ‘edge’ is pushed so far that it intrudes into real life pain and danger. When Culkin’s character begins to lose control of the scene’s church arson, violence and murder, his voiceover becomes increasingly exasperated. “Our fucked up fantasies had turned into an even more fucked up reality,” he says, with palpable desperation.
Much of this unravelling madness is down to the arrival of Varg – a newbie performer played by Emory Cohen, who was recently seen romancing Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn. Varg is initially a meek fan, but his desire to enter the black metal scene’s inner circle pushes him into ever darker directions. Cohen plays this transformation with compelling ferocity, in stark contrast to the equally excellent Culkin, whose eyes widen in fear whenever things get a little too real.
Lords of Chaos is, across the board, a movie about the moment when the carefree actions of youth spill over into something with real consequences. Just as the privileged future politicians in Lone Scherfig’s The Riot Club pushed their opulent hedonism too far in attacking a pub landlord, Varg embodies a similar role to that of Sam Claflin in Scherfig’s drama – a force of crazed exacerbation. When Åkerlund shows one of the Mayhem band members watching the blood-soaked finale of Peter Jackson’s Braindead in a stupor of desensitisation, it’s an image that hints chillingly at the bloodshed to come when fictional violence just isn’t enough.
But the most impressive thing here is the juggling of tone. As a former metal artist himself, you’d be forgiven for thinking Åkerlund would be soft on the ridiculousness of these young performers, but he is willing to turn on the comedy as often as he does the violence. One late scene, in which Varg invites a journalist into his home so that he can brag about his neo-Nazi, church-burning ideology, is a triumph of absurdity, played straight as an arrow by all involved.
It’s a movie that is completely sure of its own identity and, though it does push the boundaries perhaps a little too far in its depiction of violence, it has a lot to say about the ludicrous fantasy world these naive youngsters chose to inhabit. Åkerlund is able to helm pure horror, deadpan comedy and the sweaty, oppressive feel of a metal gig with equal aplomb, helped by a brace of excellent performances. Cohen’s Varg is a force of grim nature, while Culkin as Euronymous is a perfect, and oddly likeable, depiction of a desperate person who has got themselves in way over their head.
Dir: Jonas Åkerlund
Scr: Jonas Åkerlund, Dennis Magnusson
Cast: Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Sky Ferreira, Jack Kilmer, Valter Skarsgård, Wilson Gonzalez, Jonathan Barnwell, Anthony De La Torre, Sam Coleman
Prd: Jack Arbuthnott, Jim Czarnecki, Kwesi Dickson, Danny Gabai, Erik Gordon, Kai-Lu Hsiung, Ko Mori, Fredrik Zander
DOP: Pär M. Ekberg
Music: Claire Freeman (music supervisor), Stephen Arndt (additional music)
Country: UK, Sweden
Run time: 118 mins
Lords of Chaos is in UK cinemas from 29th March.