Welcome to Norway, a country known for “seal clubbing and a very high suicide rate,” says guitarist Euronymous (Rory Culkin). It’s 1987, and thanks to his bandmates in Mayhem (there’s an upside-down cross dropping from both M’s), his homeland will soon be infamous for a rash of church burnings and three deaths, all in the service of Norwegian Black Metal, a guttural, screaming barrage of rage that celebrates all things evil.
“Lords of Chaos” director Jonas Åkerlund knows this scene. In the early ’80s, he co-founded the Swedish metal band Bathory, then made his way to America to shoot ground-breaking music videos for everyone from Rammstein and Prodigy to Lady Gaga and Madonna. He’s got range, and that comes through in this funny, occasionally frightening anthropological dramedy about how insecure boys hound each other to be really, really bad.
Euronymous, a slender, swaggering kid with glass blue eyes, vows he’s evil incarnate. He’s merely evil adjacent, no matter how much he spouts off about satanism and heckles old ladies on the streets of Oslo. With Mayhem, and later his own record store and label, Euronymous shaped the Norwegian Black Metal scene. You’d think that’d make him cool, but Åkerlund wisely doesn’t buy it. He shows us the Volvo in Euronymous’ parents’ front yard, and his kid sister assuring that his at-home black hair dye looks totally wicked.
At first, the band kinda sucks. They get better almost imperceptibly. Non-metal fans might not even hear the difference, and Åkerlund and co-writer Dennis Magnusson don’t wedge in lectures about tritone chords and double-bass drumming. Instead, the film focuses on the moment a needle touches vinyl — a closeup he shoots twice — as well as the joy of listening to devilish thrills, and the exhilaration of head-banging, the boys’ long locks whipping so fast across the screen the image looks strobed.
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The problem with Euronymous is he has no problems. He’s popular and charismatic, and his parents not only fund his record shop, but send him a congratulatory bouquet, which he shamefully hides under the counter. Euronymous might be Mayhem’s mastermind, but his bandmates supply the blood. Literally. On stage, cherubic blonde singer Dead (Jack Kilmer), who claims bullies once beat him so badly he momentarily died, slices his arms to spray gore on the crowd. Åkerlund soaks in the fans’ ecstatic faces and Dead’s numbed pallor, which suggests he barely feels pain. Then the camera pans to Euronymous, and Culkin’s expression is clear: He could never be that extreme — and he’s jealous.
Of course, compared to the rest of the world, all of Norway is Euronymous, a chilly exterior masking a comfortable paradise. The kids in “Lords of Chaos” struggle for an excuse to revolt, and finally settle on the Church. How dare it brainwash people to be kind. Enter Varg (Emory Cohen), an awkward, but musically gifted, dork who’s only recently ripped the Scorpions patches off his jacket. Varg starts burning 12th-century chapels because he claims they’ve usurped holy Viking land. Truthfully, he’s just trying to prove he’s no poseur, even though his whole shtick is an act.
Varg’s one-man-band tracks under the name Burzum were hugely influential. But Åkerlund is most interested in how hard he tries to fit in, showing us the tiny smirk when Varg thinks he’s said something spooky, or a shot of Varg, alone in his apartment wearing corpse paint, idly eating a piece of toast. Varg is so uncomfortable in his own skin it’s hard to appreciate Cohen’s acting. He’s always self-consciously out of sync. When he thrashes his hair at a party, is he the world’s worst head-banger, or the world’s best bad head-banger? Either way, he’s fueled by an anger Euronymous can’t tap, and the more these two would-be alphas of the underworld jockey for supremacy over sidekicks Faust (Valter Skarsgård), Hellhammer (Anthony De La Torre) and Necrobutcher (Jonathan Barnwell), the more dangerous their clique becomes.
“Lords of Chaos” isn’t a celebration of destruction. There are moments of fleeting glee, like when Varg and Euronymous dance around a flaming church as it falls to pieces with the low rumble of drone metal, being created across an ocean in Seattle around the same time. In that scene, the two feel as powerful as gods. (Or, rather, two demons.) Yet, in every other minute, Åkerlund chips away at their creepy image. Until things really get crazy, image is their only currency, and they fritter it away. Euronymous and Dead’s answering machine message — “We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re too busy sacrificing children” — just makes you giggle. Even the night one metalhead becomes a murderer begins with his mom offering to make spaghetti. As for the deaths themselves, Åkerlund drags out every blow, not because he’s enjoying the blood, but because he wants the audience to feel the labor of taking a life. It isn’t easy and it isn’t glamorous and no one in the audience cheers.
Despite Åkerlund’s refusal to lionize these immature kids, “Lords of Chaos” is tremendous fun. Caveat: one must be able to handle severed pig heads, cat torture, and casual Nazism. Åkerlund’s music videos established him as a whiz-bang technician, a skill he only unleashes in two terrifying montages. “Lords of Chaos” proves that he can also get great performances out of a young cast, especially Kilmer’s otherworldly Dead. After severing his veins at a gig, Kilmer sits stiffly among his bandmates, eyes stunned, lips pale, lost somewhere inside himself that no one can reach. “Lords of Chaos” might be as close to him and his friends as anyone dares get.