Jonas Akerlund’s study of Norwegian Black Metal band Mayhem is a curious biopic that plays with accuracy and taste in its attack on toxic masculinity, and the idiocy of youth. Most people will not be familiar with the Norwegian Black Metal scene, Mayhem, or their many controversial publicity stunts that Lords of Chaos details through a definitively midwestern lens. The history is fascinating, so why does Akerlund insist on twisting it to suit cinematic sensibilities, while relentlessly trying to push an adolescent understanding of nihilistic behaviour on the audience?
We follow Rory Culkin as Mayhem’s founder and guitarist Eurynomous, a 17-year-old who claims he sees no difference between pain and joy and is looking to create something truly evil. He enlists a gathering of his gnarliest friends who engage with his grim world view, staying loyal as he instructs them to cut each other with blades. They progress swiftly to a level of talent that marks them out as a pioneering musical entity, only they are lacking a lead singer to carry their satanic sound. Which is where Jack Kilmer enters as the troubled Pete Ollen, who names himself Dead after claiming to have been beaten so badly as a child that he died for a short time. However, this line up doesn’t last long, as after a particularly gruelling suicide scene Dead becomes involved in the band’s first publicity stunt, in which Eurynomous rearranged his corpse for a bootleg live album cover. From here it’s a swift escalation into the brutality that the scene and its inner sanctum of “The Black Circle”, led by Eurynomous and devoted follower Varg (Emory Cohen), would become notorious for in the 1990s.
Sacrilegious acts of church burning, murder and neo fascism make up the majority of the second act as the group’s grip on reality begins to loosen. It’s not handled particularly subtly however, as band members stand and scream at each other about being “true Norwegian Black Metal!” and disregarding everyone else as “fucking poseurs”. Their elitism and pretentious attitudes are presented as the film’s parodical edge mostly, but the presentation of Mayhem as petulant children rather than the demonic rockers only remains engaging for a short time. Soon after it descends into an angsty coming of age story, which presents Eurynomous as our sympathetic lead.
To do this they both alter the history of the band, including creating a girlfriend (played by Sky Ferreira) for Eurynomous who never really existed, and use a cast of familiar faces for bizarre accessibility reasons. This results overall in a very violent, but mundane drama that doesn’t really cater to any specific audience. The wholly American cast as Mayhem and their entourage is severely distracting, given that the supporting cast outside the circle all speak with Nordic tones. The film is also too violent to be presented for a general audience, and too factually inaccurate for the specialist audience who would have engaged with the subject matter. As a horror it doesn’t even particularly work, there’s gore and a few jump scares through dream sequences but these are intermittent and only further the position that Lords of Chaos is poorly realised.
Lords of Chaos takes a very interesting and twisted area of musical history only to neuter it in a bizarre attempt towards commerciality. Its satire is skin deep, and whilst some artistic license is permissible in biopic films, it recklessly twists the truth to suit its narrative. If you’re into extreme horror then this may be worth a look, given one scene caused a member of the audience at Glasgow Film Fest to pass out, but if you’re after a story drive drama stay well away from this.