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Review: Lords of Chaos Fails at Trying to Deromanticize a Scene

If the music is beside the point, why are we supposed to care about the people who made it?

Gunpowder & Sky
Photo: Gunpowder & Sky

No one who truly appreciates the bleak ferocity of black metal is apt to find much to like about director Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos, a skin-deep depiction of the early-‘90s Oslo death metal scene that gets off on the salaciousness of the church burnings and murders that brought bands like Darkthrone and Burzum to international attention while treating the music itself dismissively, even with contempt. The film favors cheap irony over insight, treating the very idea that this ultra-grim art form could exist in the same world as kebab shops, sunshine, and Norwegian social democracy as a constant source of amusement. In the rare moments when the music is foregrounded, it’s accompanied by the slick, montage-heavy imagery of a corporate rock video, suggesting that Åkerlund completely misunderstands its deliberately depressive, alienating aesthetic.

Based on Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s sensationalist cult book of the same title, Lords of Chaos centers on Mayhem founder, label owner, record-shop proprietor, and all-around scene guru Euronymous (Rory Culkin), who was stabbed to death by his erstwhile friend and bandmate, Varg (Emory Cohen). Like a black leather-clad Joe Gillis, Euronymous narrates the story of his own murder from beyond the grave, though in contrast to the crackling wit of Sunset Boulevard’s protagonist, Euronymous’s voiceover is written in an overwrought, declarative style that blaringly signposts all of the film’s thematic undertones and narrative turns. The heavy-handedness of the screenplay is only exacerbated by Culkin’s flatly deadpan performance, which renders Euronymous frustratingly blank, a guy we barely feel we know even though the dialogue and narration is constantly telling us who he is.

Åkerlund presents Euronymous as, more than anything, a marketing genius, whose fascination with evil and Satanism stemmed in large part from its branding potential. Even the horrific suicide of his band’s original lead singer, Dead (Jack Kilmer), serves as an opportunity to burnish his own brutal image. Instead of immediately calling the police when he discovers the body, Euronymous runs out and buys a disposable camera, which he then uses to take grisly photos of his friend’s cratered head. Later, he even presents his bandmates with necklaces made from what he claims are fragments of their buddy’s skull.

To some extent, Lords of Chaos attempts to deromanticize this most mythologized of scenes, to show that this supposedly frightening cabal of vampiric Scandinavian Satan worshippers was really just a bunch of degenerate teenagers using their parents’ money to play-act at being evil badasses. There’s some truth in that observation, but Åkerlund’s approach is too ham-handed and superficial to draw any real insight out of it. Instead, we’re treated to scene after directionless scene of guys sitting around talking about how evil they are. When Åkerlund stumbles onto a clever idea—for example, highlighting the absurdity of the scene’s image obsession with laughable photo shoots of dudes wearing corpse paint and grimacing at each other—he runs it into the ground by repeating the same gag over and over.

Åkerlund’s breezy approach to this material not only cheapens the music, but also has the effect of downplaying the severity of the scene’s truly unsavory politics: its racism, homophobia, misogyny, and strident anti-Christianity. The filmmakers never interrogate what drove these guys to create such noisy, depressing music, much less why it resonated with alienated weirdos around the globe. Instead, Lords of Chaos simply reduces Norwegian black metal to the story of a bunch of wild and crazy young men doing stupid, fucked-up things. In so doing, the film undercuts its entire reason to exist: If the music is beside the point, why are we supposed to care about the people who made it?

Cast: Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Anthony De La Torre, Sky Ferreira, Jack Kilmer, Valter Skarsgård, Sam Coleman, Jonathan Barnwell, Wilson Gonzalez Ochsenknecht, Lucian Charles Collier, Anette Martinsen, Andrew Lavelle, James Edwin Director: Jonas Åkerlund Screenwriter: Dennis Magnusson, Jonas Åkerlund Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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