Lords of Chaos charts the evolution of Norwegian black metal and the increasingly bitter rivalry between two major players on the scene, which in 1993 led to the murder of musician Øystein Aarseth.
Informing the audience the film we’re about to see is based on ‘truth and lies’, Jonas Åkerlund’s excellent second feature takes a leaf out of Sunset Boulevard’s book (having a dead person narrate the story), with events told from the perspective of doomed Aarseth (played by Rory Culkin), the main man in the drama and whom others gravitated towards in his various roles as record shop owner, indie label runner and chief architect of the black metal sound (repeatedly, proudly and pompously referred to as ‘True Norwegian Black Metal’.)
Young, dumb and full of Nietzsche, the scene’s movers and shakers believed they were better than everybody else and wanted to make music for a select, anointed few. Aarseth’s gang (known as the Black Circle) were all about up turning society and social norms, promoting evil, inspiring fear and terror in the media and population. They saw themselves as the Übermenschen of rock and cultivated an underground and deviant form of self-expression, the delicious irony at the heart of the film is in how their repeated distaste for publicity and fame ultimately led to worldwide notoriety.
While sporting corpse makeup and taking music to dark places, the likes of Aarseth and his group were far from the offspring of Rosemary and Beelzebub, nor born and raised in cradles of filth, they were (get ready for a non-surprise) bored middle-class white kids rebelling against their privileged upbringings. This is how a lot of music scenes and subcultures develop (teenage rebellion), though Norwegian black metal expanded into petulant acts of vandalism and homicide, so obsessed were a few in pushing the boundaries and adopting nihilistic attitudes. Aarseth, too, is mad keen on being Norway’s ultimate bad boy and weeding out ‘poseurs’ (his favourite insult), but director Åkerlund’s depicts the musician as the biggest poseur of the lot.
Lords of Chaos finds plenty of humour in the antics of Euronymous (Aarseth’s nom de guerre) and once-polite teenagers lashing out against bourgeois conformity. The deadpan dialogue and amusing performances from Culkin and Emory Cohen, as Burzum’s Varg Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh, draw us into a world which appears at once antisocial, funny, intense, intellectually ugly, morally bankrupt and more than a little bit silly.
Yet Åkerlund – well-known for his own controversial, boundary-pushing music videos – reins in the misanthropy, when depicting mental illness and scenes of violence, including a gruesome (but true to life) suicide, a homophobic murder and the paranoid attack against Aarseth in his home, which left him with 23 stab wounds and dead at 25. The filmmaker directs these moments with a genuine and palpable sense of horror, which serves to underline the film’s riveting combination of the absurd and the disturbed.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn