Lords of Chaos review Rory CulkinYear: 2018
Director(s): Jonas Akerlund
Writer(s): Jonas Akerlund
Region of Origin: UK, Sweden
Rating: R
Color, 112 mins

Synopsis: A teenager’s quest to launch Norwegian Black Metal in Oslo in the early 1990’s results in a very violent outcome. (Source)

With its outlandish stage antics, abrasive music and dark imagery, metal has long been prone to ridicule by outsiders. In truth, the genre is much more complex and accessible than most believe. With Lords of Chaos, director Jonas Akerlund lays it all bare. Akerlund takes a look at the truth and fiction of mythical black metal legends Mayhem, leaning into all of the genre’s stereotypes, but also dissecting them with pure reverence. This film is funny, entertaining and honest, but at its core, an unflinchingly story about young boys becoming men. From someone who grew up as a metalhead, the film truly captures the attitudes and lifestyle (good and bad) of the culture. It’s also a true crowd pleaser that doesn’t oversimplify its subject or the humanity that lines its core.

In the 80s, a group of disillusioned teenagers form Mayhem in order to rise against Christian guilt and the sterilized culture of Norway. Steeped in morbid imagery, nihilistic ideals and the most vicious form of metal, the band quickly starts to make waves. At its center, Øystein (Rory Culkin), stage name Euronymous, leads the band and keeps pushing its darker elements further, challenging those around him to keep up. After their singer Pelle (Jack Kilmer) commits suicide, Øystein capitalizes on the event, playing into it with shock value while secretly being tortured by it. Eventually, a young man named Varg (Emory Cohen) falls in with the group. He’s unfazed by Øystein’s theatrics, disappointed by the idea that they’re seemingly just for show. Øystein and Varg build a friendly rivalry, but gradually push each other over the edge. It all leads to irreversible acts of violence that will change the scene forever.

More than most music films, which are short-sighted, predictable biopics, Akerlund’s deconstructs metal through a tragic friendship/rivalry. With such a human anchor, the film finds a relatable way into its rarely correctly seen culture. Finally, this is a film that doesn’t treat metal as window dressing, but instead explores and tries to understand it. It’s this perspective that allows for a deep dive into the genre’s themes of identity, isolation, depression and more. And yet, the film is far from just a downer. It may treat its moments of carnage with the sobering reflection, but Akerlund also depicts how goofy the genre can be. From the makeup, to the kids playing pretend in more ways than one, Akerlund expertly balances laughs with existential and bodily terror.

Lords of Chaos review Rory Culkin Jack KilmerWith Akerlund’s focus on character, the performances take center stage – in particular, Rory Culkin and Emory Cohen. Tackling the central figures from the Mayhem saga, Culkin and Cohen operate very much as a unit, with chemistry that allows their characters to both repel and attract each other. Culkin is perhaps the film’s anchor, initially stepping things up and getting them to a spiraling point of no return. With every action, he renders both outside and inside turmoil, able to keep them separate or bring them together in heartbreaking ways. Cohen’s Varg has an amazing transformation throughout, always shifting as conflicted feelings to light. In a smaller but very memorable role, Jack Kilmer’s Pelle sets the stage for the film’s tone and its quandaries. Kilmer does so much with his limited time, hanging over the film without being there. Adding to everything, Valter Skarsgard, Sky Ferreira and a few others make up the Mayhem’s Black Circle, the group’s closest friends.

In my opinion, Lords of Chaos is absolutely the best adaptation that could’ve been made. It’s self-aware but not demeaning, funny but brutal, and it’s built around the raw, primal emotions that mirror what metal means to a lot of adoring fans. Deeper, it’s a haunting look at how easily we can become the person we pretend to be. It’s also a reminder that metal is infinitely more than just burning churches, upside down crosses and morbid lifestyles, despite including all of these things. Above all, this film is proof that behind every story, are people who have lived, died and felt the same confusion and fears that we’ve all felt at one point or another. Metalhead or not, this is a solid film that stays rooted in character while blending its tragedy with catharsis.