“Am I evil? Yes I am,” croon Euronymous (Rory Culkin) and Varg (Emory Cohen) as they watch a church go up in flames in Lords of Chaos (in theaters Feb. 8). Though the lyrics are from Diamond Head’s classic 1980 thrasher, they’re a perfect fit for the duo, the former the guitarist of pioneering Norwegian black metal outfit Mayhem, and the latter his acolyte, rival and eventual killer. A pair of doom-courting boundary-pushers with a love for warpath riffs, double-bass beats, howling screams and anything related to death and destruction, they’re the epitome of metal extremity—and so too is their story.
An adaptation of Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s non-fiction book about the birth of Norwegian black metal and the catastrophe that befell its renegade parents—culminating in Varg’s 1993 murder of Euronymous—Lords of Chaos is grisly music history writ loud. It claims to be “Based on truth…lies…and what actually happened,” and by and large, it gets the details right, delivering them via a psychoanalytic drama that helps explain how, and why, such lunacy occurred in the first place. There’s true evil to be found in Jonas Åkerlund’s latest (co-written by Dennis Magnusson), be it public mutilation, corpse desecration, arson, sexual humiliation and gory slaughter. Yet far from a one-note celebration of bad kids doing awful things, the film is a stark, critical portrayal of outcast peer dynamics, and the horrific hazards posed by mixing anger and alienation with anarchic artistic expression.
Guided by great performances from Culkin and, in particular, Cohen as the seething-with-annihilating-fury Varg, it’s heavy-metal myth, electric and revolting in equal measure.
“I was brought to this world to create chaos, suffering and death,” announces Euronymous (real name Øystein Aarseth) in narration at the film’s outset. A rebellious teen from a traditional nuclear family, Euronymous finds refuge and inspiration in heavy metal, and seeks to push the form into more out-there terrain with his band Mayhem, which quickly becomes notorious courtesy of its stage performances. Those are highlighted by the behavior of lead singer Per Yngve Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), aka Dead, who carves himself up in front of audiences (splattering front-row fans with his blood), buries his clothes in soil (the better to boast a freshly-rotting smell), and sniffs roadkill before shows so he can be invigorated by the stench of death. Along with their genre-defining white-and-black “corpse makeup,” Euronymous and Dead help create a subgenre that revels in pain, suffering and loss, and Åkerlund captures their freewheeling radical spirit with blistering enthusiasm, depicting their early days together as a macabre marriage made in hell.
Mayhem quickly amasses a cult following, and Euronymous—an arrogant kid whose record store (opened with his dad’s money) becomes the epicenter of the Norwegian metal scene—wastes little time taking credit for everything done by his headbanging faithful. The band’s stock rises after Dead offs himself in 1991 and Euronymous, upon finding his frontman’s body, rearranges the scene for maximum shock value and takes photos of it—as well as collects skull fragments to use as necklaces for his bandmates (true!) and eats some of his brain (less true!). Åkerlund’s story is, on the one hand, about the emergence of a ghoulish music, and culture, dedicated to rejecting Norway’s cheery 1980s normality. More pressingly, though, it’s a thriller about the dangers of embracing a fatalistic kill-‘em-all ethos—in art and in life—especially when that goes hand-in-hand with treating psychotic loners poorly. Which is where Varg comes in.
Embodied by Cohen as a scarily intense young man desperate to be liked by his idol, Varg first approaches Euronymous at a diner, where Euronymous’ comment about a Scorpions patch on Varg’s jacket proves a harsh means of dismissing him as a poseur. Though Varg soon ingratiates himself into Euronymous’ clique, known as the “Black Circle” (whose meetings are held in a candlelight dungeon under Euronymous’ record store), their friendship is founded on resentment. That only grows as Varg establishes his metal bona fides with Burzum—a ferocious one-man-band project—and wholeheartedly adopts Euronymous’ anti-religious, anti-status quo beliefs. In this case, that takes the form of burning down the country’s churches, via a fiery spree that earns him further cred with his metal brethren—and which Euronymous says he inspired, portraying himself as some sort of demonic mastermind, much to Varg’s bitter distaste.
In their fraught relationship, Lords of Chaos plays like a satanic companion piece to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Varg’s eagerness for Euronymous’ acceptance leads him to not only mimic his hero, but to try to impress him with crazed feats of devastation. When Culkin’s Euronymous then tries to steal Varg’s glory—all while refraining from doing anything fanatical himself—an explosive stew begins to boil. The question of authenticity and phoniness is central here, and exacerbated by other Black Circle members’ actions as well, most notably Faust’s (Valter Skarsgård) murder of a 43-year-old gay man, which is motivated by his desire to know what it feels like to stick a blade into human flesh. Delight in deviant thoughts about Nazis and necromancers for too long, the film cautions, and beware the impulses that eventually consume your heart and soul.
Åkerlund doesn’t skimp on the ensuing carnage, staging Death’s suicide and Faust and Varg’s homicides as prolonged set pieces of unthinkable brutality. In all three instances, his camera stays trained on its subjects as they slash and stab with methodical viciousness, each plunge of the knife proving more unpleasant than the last. In doing so, he counters his early going’s celebratory rise-to-metal-fame mood with a sobering look at the ugliness it begat—which also extended to these men’s treatment of women, including Euronymous’ paramour Ann-Marit (Sky Ferreira), forced to strip in one scene by serial fornicator Varg. Lords of Chaos is anything but a cheery lionization of these individuals who, regardless of their groundbreaking sonic concoctions, lost the thread between fantasy and reality, performance and morality, to fatal ends.
While no mention is made of Varg’s subsequent prominence in Norway’s white-power movement (both during and after his incarceration for slaying Euronymous), that information should come as no surprise, since Åkerlund and Magnusson’s script lays out the Venn diagram-like overlap between various enraged ideologies, all of them linked by kids’ desire to be as defiant and inappropriate as possible. As the incisive Lords of Chaos makes clear, black metal’s lifeblood is misery and madness, and to adopt it as a genuine way of life is to journey down a path that leads directly to the grave.