Lords of Chaos. 2019. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund. Screenplay by Åkerlund & Dennis Magnusson. Based on the book by Michael Moynihan & Didrik Søderlind.
Starring Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Valter Skarsgård, Anthony De La Torre, Jonathan Barnwell, Sam Coleman, Lucian Charles Collier, James Edwyn, Andrew Lavelle, & Arion Csihar.
4 1/2 Film / Eleven Arts / Insurgent Media / Scott Free Productions / Twentieth Century Fox
Rated R. 118 minutes.
Biography / Drama / Horror / Music / Thriller
Disclaimer: The following article contains oodles & oodles of spoilers. Beware.
Director Jonas Åkerlund – himself a former drummer of Swedish black metal band Bathory (1983-84) – didn’t make Lords of Chaos solely for metal fans, despite being based on infamous Norwegian black metal group Mayhem. He made the decision to not have the actors use Norwegian accents or speak in Norwegian at all, opting to let stars Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, and Jack Kilmer, among others, speak in Englsih with their regular accents. He likewise chose to not use much black metal on the soundtrack, outside of scenes depicting Mayhem’s live performances and fleeting sonic moments of Burzum. Åkerlund did all this because the story itself is universal— just so happens it’s tangled up in Norway’s fast growing black metal scene during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Lords of Chaos is, at times deeply, darkly funny. This takes nothing away from its very true to life horror. Neither does it detract from Åkerlund and co-writer Dennis Magnusson’s focus on how the gruesome history of Mayhem is a hard lesson about authenticity, exploitation, fame, and the often self-fulfilling prophesy of those who step too close to the edges of true darkness. Specifically the focus is on the actions of Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth, Per ‘Dead’ Ohlin, and Kristian ‘Varg’ Vikernes.
What the film does best is walk a line between fantasy and reality through the perspective of Euronymous (played fantastically by ever rising star Rory Culkin). Åkerlund and Magnusson’s screenplay explores themes of art v. commerce – where a musician’s persona ends and reality begins – and how psychologically dangerous it can be when the line between the two blurs. Art loses its efficacy when there’s nothing behind it except marketing smoke and mirrors. Art can also become a dangerous entity once it bleeds off the canvas into real life.
“This is not a joke— you are terror incarnate.”
The film’s dripping in irony because Euronymous calls others ‘poser’ for not being “true Norwegian black metal” like Mayhem, when he’s one of the biggest posers of all. Using his character as a protagonist(/antagonist) and also as a beyond the grave narrator is smart, giving us a sense of closeness while also maintaining distance— there’s a dichotomy in his personality watching him onscreen then hearing his detached, ghostly narration. This difficult perspective via Øystein guides the entire story. Most important is a parallel look at a single scene from two points of view revolving around Dead’s suicide, each epitomising the duality of truth v. lies within Euronymous himself.
Early on there’s a moment between Øystein and Ohlin (played morbidly pitch perfect by Jack Kilmer) where the former taunts the latter about his suicidal ideation. Euronymous takes out a rifle, holds it to Dead’s forehead, and casually tells him there’s “a way out” if he really wants to die. After Dead does kill himself – cutting his wrists and throat before shooting himself – Euronymous finds the corpse. In the first scene, Øystein takes pictures, posing the knife in a better place, and, from his POV, we see a fabled moment in Mayhem history depicting him potentially taking a piece of brain and eating it.
“I think he was trapped in the image of Mayhem.”
— Manheim (Once Upon a Time in Norway)
We return to Dead’s suicide later as guilt and fame eat away at Øystein, and, through the POV of Euronymous, see what was likely closer to the truth in that post-suicide moment, where he cries, pushing himself to take pictures because it’s what’s expected of him/his emerging ‘brand.’ Grief is visible all over him as opposed to the earlier version of this scene which saw him as uncaring and callous. This is one of the most powerful moments where the audience genuinely begins to see Euronymous as a totally unreliable narrator. Part of the screenplay’s entire approach is to show how everybody has their own version of the narrative, and, as the opening crawl suggests, the tale of Mayhem is comprised of much truth and just as many lies.
Øystein is the focal point in Lords of Chaos because his antagonism is what drove so much of the black metal scene surrounding Mayhem. In the documentary Once Upon a Time in Norway, former Mayhem drummer Kjetil Manheim says Øystein was with him the day Dead committed suicide. Manheim goes on to say Euronymous encouraged Dead to kill himself – think back to the scene with Øystein holding the rifle’s barrel to Ohlin’s face – and purposefully made sure he was at the house by himself that afternoon. Later, Øystein had necklaces made from pieces of Dead’s skull. He handed them out to others in the band, and to others in the local scene he believed were genuine black metal. In Once Upon a Time in Norway, bassist Jørn ‘Necrobutcher ‘ Stubberud says he was taken aback by Dead’s suicide in light of Øystein’s actions: “I was in shock and grief. He was just thinking of how to exploit it.”
Exploitation is a defining element of Øystein’s personality. He exploited Dead’s suicide, then went on to manipulate and exploit Varg Vikernes of Burzum, more so when Varg was made an official member of Mayhem. In the film we see Varg’s habit of church burning, which came out of his fierce ideological stance on Christianity and the culture of morality in Norway. He went out, on his own, and burned down a church. Euronymous attempted to take credit by proxy as the one who planted the idea’s seed. A nugget of truth exists here, in that Øystein was a catalyst for extreme behaviour.
A prior scene shows him meeting with Varg, just after Ohlin’s death, and spouting off extreme anti-Christian rhetoric. Another scene involves Bård Guldvik ‘Faust’ Eithun (Valter Skarsgård) stabbing a gay man out of nothing more than macabre interest— this comes after Faust admits to wanting to feel what it’s like to “penetrate a knife into a human body” and Euronymous casually encourages him to find out.
Regardless, Varg was the one to literally burn a church, just as Dead had been the one to take talk of death and suicide to a real life conclusion, just as Faust was the one to go out and physically kill a man. These acts divided the scene between those who solely talk the talk and those who walk the walk. Varg, Dead, and Faust were the real, extreme deal, despite the respective horrifically destructive acts they’d go on to commit. They were each dedicated to corporeal brutality, whereas Euronymous treated it as a business, using all death and destruction as a method of selling records.
“Saying things like ‘Never sell out’ fucking sells.”
The truly cutting irony is Øystein and Vikernes came from middle class and bourgeois upbringings. At the start of the film, Øystein narrates while we see glimpses of his home life, including a typical photo of his family dressed in matching sweaters. During a later scene, Varg convinces Euronymous to release Burzum’s record by paying for the production costs using money from his mother. Even Dead’s backstory isn’t as dire as it’s made to seem in the film. We’re told he was technically dead after being beat up as a child, which is only half true. Manheim tells the story (in Once Upon a Time in Norway) as Dead having fallen hard on some ice while skating as a boy and briefly dying in the hospital before doctors revived him.
None of these young men were repressed or living in poor socioeconomic conditions. These were angry, lost individuals whose mutual interests swept them up in a terrifying whirlwind. Any true friend would’ve gotten Dead psychiatric help before he brutally killed himself. A telling scene depicts Mayhem after a show getting food and Dead, who spent his time onstage self-mutilating to serious lengths, is left pale and shivering with his wounds duct taped. Nobody takes him to the hospital. He’s reduced to a human prop for the band’s stage show. Euronymous only wanted to perpetuate Mayhen’s branded image— the same reason he’d associate with someone like Varg, who proudly linked himself to Nazi imagery and racist ideology. These were young, confused dudes looking to escape a boring existence. Instead of finding anything positive to latch onto, they found nothing but darkness, and it swallowed them all whole.
“It was just promotion”
“Nah, not for me— I believed in it.”
What’s tragi-comically ironic about the entire story is that Euronymous was, for all intents and purposes, a true poser in the black metal world, yet he was one of its creators, and his fake posing (i.e. saying hardcore things he’d never do himself) still went on to influence, to some degree, others to commit horrific acts of extreme destruction and violence. Øystein was similar to a cult leader like Charles Manson. He may never have killed himself but actively encouraged others to do so, and fostered an environment in which they felt they were capable of doing such things.
Lords of Chaos is a scathing look at Mayhem’s legacy, ultimately begging the question: does anybody really love the band, or were they in love with an image? Even fans who love Mayhem’s music were bought and sold on a lie: a carefully constructed fabrication, a commodity, a fantasy image orchestrated by Øystein. There are elements of the image which are truth, though the lies outweigh them. This doesn’t change the fact Euronymous crossed moral lines in pursuit of fame, as did Varg. While Varg is a despicable person, his actions, from the church burnings to the killing of Øystein, were out of a (warped) sense of true belief. In total opposition, Øystein acted righteous about being true to spirit of black metal but believed in nothing, except that he was a musician, eventually giving way to a narcissistic craving for fame.
Mayhem, under guidance of Euronymous, tread into dangerous territory because the dark fantasy of black metal couldn’t be contained in their lyrics. Øystein, Ohlin, and Varg each crossed lines— some far more serious than others. They went past those boundaries where other artists have stopped short. Transgressive art isn’t new, and horror has existed as a genre since the first ghost stories were told around a fire thousands upon thousands of years ago. Mayhem went beyond transgressive art, embodying the violent destruction of their fantasies and crossing the line separating fiction from reality. At a certain point, Varg stopped being a musician and transformed into a psychopath, Euronymous went from poser tourist to genuinely disturbed narcissist, and Dead lost his life by spiralling into untreated mental illness used as a commodity by his supposed friend. Norwegian black metal grew into a monster out of control, a creation for which these main players paid a heavy price. They’re not the first to let their art destroy them, nor will they be the last. Their story remains a particularly gruesome, wild instance of art and commerce running off the rails with devastating real world consequences.