Arrow Films | Release Date: February 8, 2019
5.1
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Bertaut1Apr 8, 2019
Equal parts funny and harrowing; an enjoyable "true story"

Looking at late 80s/early 90s Norwegian black metal, Lords of Chaos asks, "was its extreme image authentic or manufactured". Adapted from Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind's 1998
Equal parts funny and harrowing; an enjoyable "true story"

Looking at late 80s/early 90s Norwegian black metal, Lords of Chaos asks, "was its extreme image authentic or manufactured". Adapted from Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind's 1998 book, written for the screen by Dennis Magnusson and Jonas Åkerlund, and directed by Åkerlund (himself a founding member of black metal band Bathory), the film suggests that behind the scenes, most black metallers knew that their militant anti-establishment Satanism, claims of human sacrifices, championing of suicide, and advocation of anti-Christian violence were simply marketing tools, not to be taken literally. The film tells the story of what happened when some black metallers took them very literally, leading to suicide, arson, and murder.

Oslo, 1987; the film follows Oystein "Euronymous" Aarseth (Rory Culkin), who has established a band named Mayhem to create a new subgenre of "true Norwegian black metal". Hiring troubled singer Pelle "Dead" Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), the band starts to build up a following, including the awkward Kristian "Varg" Vikernes (Emory Cohen). After Dead commits suicide, Euronymous welcomes Varg into the fold. However, as Varg becomes more and more extreme, a power struggle develops between the two.

Åkerlund isn't especially interested in valorising black metal, with the majority of the film designed to chip away at its image of evil. In this sense, the story is primarily about image and marketing. Whereas some of the others saw evil in a literal sense, Euronymous saw it in terms of branding.

It's in relation to this manufactured image that much of the film's humour is to be found. Describing their style, Euronymous proudly declares, "when people hear our music, we want them to commit suicide." Later on, he admits, "all this evil and dark crap was supposed to be fun." He has to borrow his parents' car to get anywhere (it's difficult to be taken seriously as a purveyor of terror when you're in your dad's Volvo). An impassioned speech about the nature of black metal is interrupted by someone being told their kebab is ready. Euronymous complains of Christianity, "they're oppressing us with their kindness and their goodness". And in easily the funniest scene in the film, as Euronymous and Varg wait outside a recording studio, a group of elderly women emerge, with Euronymous running up to them and growling, "Hail Satan!"

From an aesthetic point of view, the film features three notable scenes; two murders and one suicide. All three scenes are shot matter-of-factly by cinematographer Pär M. Ekberg and sparsely edited by Rickard Krantz, with the suicide really getting under my skin. I'm not sure if it's the length of time it takes (the scene runs over three minutes), if it was Mattias Eklund's sound design wherein we can hear the knife cutting flesh, if it was the lack of cutaways, or if it was the close-ups of the wounds, but I found the scene brilliant, but harrowing.

Another aesthetic element worth mentioning is that the actors all speak in English with their own accents. Personally, I find this far less distracting than everyone speaking English but with Scandinavian inflexions. It's a little jarring at first, but you quickly acclimate yourself to it, and it ultimately proves far less distracting than an actor with a God-awful accent.

In terms of problems, some will take issue with how ironically the film approaches the material. The repeated shots of band members leaving their parents' homes does seem to betray something of a judgemental jokey disdain. Additionally, the film never examines what drove these young men to make this kind of music in the first place, or why these poorly recorded aggressive songs garnered such a fanatical following, which leaves a noticeable lacuna. In one respect, Lords of Chaos is an act of de-mythologizing, attempting to show that this frightening group of Satan-worshipping church burners and murderers were really just middle-class kids with a case of ennui. On the other hand, it illustrates that what had started out innocently led to some serious real-world ramifications. Euronymous is depicted as a wannabe cult leader, but one who doesn't subscribe to his own ideology of violence and rebellion, and is completely at a loss how to put the genie back in the box when certain members take his words literally. Lords of Chaos is his story before it is the story of black metal, and this is a vital point. For adherents, this will prove offensive. For everybody else, the ironic humour, harrowing violence, and thematic nihilism gel to form a fascinating film that's well worth checking out.
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