Lords of Chaos is an interesting little biopic that takes some notes from Alex Cox’s 1986 Sex Pistols movie Sid and Nancy, and Bruce McDonald’s seminal (yet entirely fictional) Hard Core Logo. These two films are brash, intense, visceral, and oftentimes incredibly uncomfortable. Lords of Chaos is no different in these respects, utilizing some fairly extreme violence and very dark themes to tell the (somewhat) true story of the Norwegian Black Metal band Mayhem. Additionally, the film employs the unreliable narrator trope (Rory Culkin’s Øystein Aarseth/Euronymous), which is doubled down upon by the opening title card: Based on Truth and Lies.
That title card is indeed the perfect opening, as it encompasses one of the central themes of the film: while the band Mayhem was all about violence, hate, misery and death, was that in fact their true raison d’etre, or was it something more akin to promotion and profitability? I loved that the movie showed us both sides, before slowly revealing the characters’ disparate motivations.
Lords of Chaos does play up the juxtaposition of authenticity and disingenuous artifice, a duality that is set up and then completely subverted between the main characters, with various members of the ‘Black Circle’ revealing their true colours for better or worse over the course of the film. It creates a very interesting dynamic, as we – the audience – rarely know who is real, and who is a poser. Poser culture itself is played for fun and derision in the film as well.
Rory Culkin is certainly the star of the movie, and while I found myself disliking the character for most of the runtime, I appreciated what he was bringing to the role: wide-eyed optimism through the lens of cynical assurance, and a dictator-like bravado, which may or may not be genuine.
Emory Cohen’s Varg is less convincing. His milquetoast demeanor works for a time, but as his character’s arc plays out, I found his performance began to wear thin. Perhaps it’s down to the screenplay, or perhaps it’s down to his ability as an actor, but particularly for a character that occasionally plays an antagonistic role, he didn’t work for me at all.
Visually, this movie is beautiful, utilizing super-saturated colours early on (perhaps to reflect the ambitions of the characters), and then becoming more drab as the story progresses into something more bleak. The aesthetic mirrors the story and it works rather well.
Despite being a fairly formulaic rock band biopic, it does devolve into some very familiar horror tropes that feel incredibly out of place. This is not a horror film, so why include these sequences? And considering that there are only two or three sequences of this, it comes across as forced and unfocused.
I wish the movie had given me a little more about Norwegian metal itself. Granted, it’s about this band, not the entire scene, but some perspective would have been appreciated. As the audience, we’re not required to know much about this particular sub-genre of metal, but I feel like further context could have had me even more invested.
I recognize that actors are not musicians, but it’s a big complaint of mine in movies about musicians where it’s clear that the actors aren’t playing their instruments. Some of the actors here pull it off rather well, but Culkin (who is in fact playing the band-leader) looks like he’s never held a guitar before. Bradley Cooper learned to sing and play guitar for his role in A Star Is Born, and at no point did I find that commitment from Culkin. Fortunately, we rarely see the band actually playing or rehearsing, but when we do, it feels like Culkin is simply moving his hand up and down the frets with no understanding of what he’s doing, which is at the very least distracting.
Lords of Chaos skirts the line between truth and legend, between reality and lies, while telling a completely insane, mostly true, and engaging story. While it is in no way perfect, it is certainly an interesting ride, and is not just for Black Metal enthusiasts. It will likely entertain those who enjoy musician biopics, and those that just like a crazy story.
- Release Date: 3/1/2019
- Directed by: Jonas Akerlund
- Starring: Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Rory Culkin
- Written by: Jonas Akerlund
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