Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos raises a lot of unexpectedly deep questions: What does it mean to belong to a group? What is true friendship? How fuzzy can the line between performance and real life get?
The answers get increasingly complicated for the film’s central characters, cinematic versions of the real-life Norwegian black metal band Mayhem. Back in the 1980s, members of the group were accused of burning several of the country’s historic churches — and they might have killed some people in the process. The ringleader was bassist Kristian “Varg” Vikernes, who served a pitifully short (16-year) jail sentence for murder.
Lords of Chaos picks up before all of the arson and homicides, laying the groundwork for the darkness ahead with the brutal suicide of the band’s original singer, Pelle “Dead” Ohlin (Jack Kilmer, simultaneously cherubic and brutal). We see this death and all events in the film through the eyes of our narrator, founding band member Euronymous, played with a darkly comic edge by Rory Culkin, who slithers between being completely unlikable and totally sympathetic with ease.
Euronymous talks a big game about being an eeevil devil-worshipper, but it’s mostly just talk, albeit delivered with sardonic wit that kept me compelled even when the film waded knee-deep into gruesome violence of the most visceral kind (which, if you want to keep track, happens three times). He builds up an entourage of impressionable young men with dark inclinations, and together they have frat house-style bro-a-thons in the basement of the record store he’s opened on his father’s dime.
It’s around these hard-partying times that Varg fatefully enters the picture. A textbook “poser” when we first meet him — and called out as such by Euronymous — he imitates Mayhem and slowly insinuates himself into their lives, eventually joining the band. Emory Cohen’s Varg is perfect. He’s so baby-faced and eager to please that he’s easy to underestimate, which is exactly what Euronymous does. When Varg starts acting out the fantasies Euronymous only talks about, becoming increasingly more fascistic and unhinged as the film goes on, it’s only a matter of time before everything, including all of those lovely 12th-century stave churches, goes up in flames.
Lords of Chaos is a dark movie, but it’s also an extremely funny one. The ridiculous hyperbole of Euronymous and his minions is pure gold. At one point a young woman asks Euronymous about the band’s groupies. He doesn’t miss a beat, telling her with a straight face, “We don’t want any groupies. We’re into death and destruction. When people hear our music, we want them to commit suicide.” Of course, he knows better, because who would be out there to buy records if everyone were dead? But Varg doesn’t seem to grasp that concept, either because he’s deep into pretending to be a nihilist or he actually is one.
Their story is not one that ends well (but you don’t expect it too, right?). The ride, however, is surprisingly fun.
Now playing at Grail Moviehouse