Lords Of Chaos review
Spoiler alert: Varg kills Euronymous.
Black metal can be a touchy subject. No piece of heavy metal culture has ever invited so much enduring global controversy as the heinous activities of the early Norwegian black metal scene, which makes it a prime target for sensationalist reporting by media such as Lords Of Chaos. Run-of-the-mill metal fans often react negatively to elements of the genre being commodified by or for outsiders, but black metal especially requires a graduate degree in eggshell-treading – this branch of the family has always attracted the most insular and dogmatic of metal exponents, and its reputation precedes it as a style that can come packaged with a rigid ideology. There will never be any path to pleasing all metal fans with a representation of the time and place in history that gave rise to this subgenre, let alone effectively initiating unenlightened viewers for whom Marduk is indistinguishable from Guns N’ Roses, and Lords Of Chaos chose an unnecessarily difficult path anyway. Director Jonas Åkerlund once stated his reluctance to include much black metal on the soundtrack because of how harsh it sounds to those who are not used to it, which is both one of the most impressive self-inflicted wounds I’ve seen in cinema lately and a pretty good indicator of just how much Lords Of Chaos is willing to commit to telling the story of black metal in a meaningful fashion. It is in some way fortunate that Lords Of Chaos fails to be a compelling film regardless of how well it captures the spirit of black metal, for it relegates arguments over authenticity to the realm of pure academia where they belong (but I’m nonetheless going to open by talking about how well it captures the spirit of black metal).
Portraying the genesis of black metal earnestly and honestly was always going to be something of an impossible hurdle no matter who was at the helm, for there are many different accounts of what the Norwegian black metal scene was like. To its credit, Lords Of Chaos does make an attempt to present a nuanced view of black metal’s central figures and origins (“attempt” being the operative word). Ostensibly the linchpin of the operation, and the key to understanding the broader movement, is Øystein Aarseth himself, the self-proclaimed artistic and aesthetic arbiter of all things evil and awfully produced. There are those who buy into the cult of Euronymous and take at face value the image that he cultivated for himself: that of a demonic genius who single-handedly spun the sound of black metal from formless darkness and who directed one of music’s most powerful statements of all-purpose opposition. Others see him as a demented gremlin whose standoffish morbidity was bred from disaffection, confusion, and boredom, while others take a more cynical view of Aarseth as a manipulative, opportunistic publicist who exploited his cohorts’ proclivities for exposure. Some remember him as a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of independent music, a man who made connections all around the world to encourage aspiring artists, and others feel that he was an authoritarian edgelord whose self-important bloviation wound up dragging him unprepared past the point of safe return. Former Mayhem drummer Kjetil Manheim said of Euronymous’s encouragements of Dead to kill himself, “I don’t know if Øystein did it out of pure evil or if he was just fooling around,” and that uncertain duality seems to stalk reminiscences of his career.
Lords Of Chaos makes the synergistic assumption that all of the above were true simultaneously, continuously amending Euronymous’s established character with elements of one persona or another; depending on the scene, he is a pretentious poser-killer, a credit-stealing coattail-rider, a jaded label owner, or a traumatized kid. I find it difficult to ascribe the legacy of Euronymous to anyone who was not at least a little bit of all these things, so personally I see no reason why they couldn’t all be true. It’s a keen observation on the part of the film that real life is often murkier than a single linear account, and, ultimately, debates over the portrayal of Euronymous in this film are best left to those who knew him; I was born the year after he was murdered, so I’m certainly not in a position to adjudicate over which interpretation of his identity is most accurate. There are aspects that we can criticize with some degree of objectivity: Euronymous was not the Mötley Crüe-aspirant hedonist that he is sometimes portrayed as (nor was Varg Vikernes, for that matter), and all that the house parties and groupie-chasing serve to do is muddy the waters for any viewers who cannot recognize the difference between KISS and Windir. Perhaps they are true to life; perhaps they are fabrications; whatever the authenticity of these rock star antics, to a lot of people out there, “black metal” is just another way of describing Avenged Sevenfold, and this film makes no effort to disabuse them of that notion. We’re also treated to brief snippets of Euronymous’s life as a son and as an older brother, scenes that do absolutely nothing to contextualize him or add to the film at all, and worse yet, he’s given a girlfriend with no historical basis – first the object of competition between him and Varg, and later a bellwether for his relationship to the ideas he created. These are the “lies” upon which the film claims to be based, in addition to “truth” and “what really happened,” and they were not prudent choices. The real issue, however, is not which path the film settled on, but that its characterization of Euronymous is as shallow as a washbasin.
The question of what Euronymous was like is neither as interesting nor as crucial as the question of why he was that way, and this is something that Lords Of Chaos has no intention of addressing. Euronymous has no internality, no complex thought, no articulate motivations. The closest we come to understanding him as a person is when he deigns to narrate certain scenes with a cheesy voice-over that’s just a hair shy of the classic freeze-frame-plus-record-scratch “Yeah, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got into this mess. It all started when…” What the film fails to grasp is that balancing so many different facets of a person’s identity requires some amount of connective tissue; the audience needs to be able to piece together what has driven the character to so many conflicting actions, or else it appears to be the product of poor writing. There must have been reasons why Euronymous went from hanging out with his little sister in one scene to being fascinated by Dead’s corpse in another, but we are not privy to them. Varg suffers the same: first he’s a dopey, awkward kid who gets bullied for listening to Scorpions, and then, with no explanation, he’s a psychopathic ringleader with a deadly stare and a coherent mission. What was happening offscreen to bring about this change? Where the hell is the context for any of this? He’s supposed to be a bad person, not a bad character. You can’t just have Faust cross the background and go, “Golly, I sure do wish I knew what it was like to stab somebody,” and then later have him stab somebody out of the blue. That’s not how character development works, and it’s not how people work, either, unless they have something wrong with them that should be addressed earlier in the story.
The reason that Lords Of Chaos gets accused of sensationalizing the events surrounding Norwegian black metal is that it exhibits no curiosity about how or why all of this came to be, only that it did come to be. It doesn’t display any particular respect for black metal as an art form, which is an insult on its own that only further divides the story from its source, but it has even less interest in what black metal meant to these people such that they could become so unhinged. If you want to talk about black metal, if you want to address what happened, if you want to expose the mentality that permeated this bizarre cult, then you have to have some sensitivity as to why a group of young men might gravitate toward a quasi-religious embrace of darkness. You should have something to offer about Norwegian society at the time, about Varg’s childhood environment, about concurrent movements in the metal scene, about the allure of totalitarian chic and reckless cruelty that swallowed up impressionable teens. You should have at least seen Fight Club. Yet this film is oddly divorced from the ideologies, influences, and impacts of black metal. Oh, sure, yes, there are a couple of references to the oppressive dictatorship propped up by “the Church” (it’s the Church of Norway, which is Lutheran, in case you have any desire for details of the theological orientation of black metal’s opponents beyond “Christianity bad Satan good”); the film considers its debt to context paid by puppeteering a couple of randos into shouting “HAIL SATAN” at random intervals while they throw stuff at cars. Surprisingly, that is not enough to explain satisfactorily just what it was that these bands had as their goal, how they evolved, and why any of this resonated with the metal scene. Any snippet of the film that imputes any tangible motivation to the Black Circle features a serpentine Euronymous at his most disingenuous or a smirking Varg goading people into doing his bidding; it may as well come with subtitles explaining that it’s all malarkey. The understanding displayed by this film is superficial at best and represented entirely by unbelievable throwaway lines in which the characters can’t decide whether they are supposed to be convincing their counterparts, the audience, or themselves of whatever it is that’s coming out of their mouths. Even if the truth is that they themselves do not understand why they do what they do, there has to be some exploration of this matter, or else we’re just left with a series of things happening with no explanation and as much depth as any episode of your favorite police procedural.
The ability of a piece of media like this film to accrue any kind of worth rests on its ability to approach its subject with the most delicate balance: neither overly reverent, for fear of lionizing the grotesqueries, nor overly irreverent, for fear of misapprehending reality and alienating those to whom the subject is most meaningful. Lords Of Chaos falls into the latter trap, treating black metal as something that bored teenagers created to piss off their parents, and while it is sometimes convenient to portray the scene’s architects in such an undignified manner in order to wind back adherents who continue to take its tenets far too seriously, that approach ultimately offers no insight into how people end up in this situation in the first place, and it’s certainly not going to provide adequate warning to people on the edge of it. Youthful angst drives people to play loud music and disrespect their elders. It takes a little more than that to drive people to murder, suicide, and the kind of ignominy that black metal is associated with.
When Dead was 10 years old, he was bullied with such extremity that he suffered a ruptured spleen and momentarily died. Let’s have that again, for emphasis: at the age of 10, he was beaten to death. Timely intervention revived him, but he spent the next 12 years of his life damaged by that experience, and that’s why we hear of his strange practices like burying his clothes, collecting dead animals, and mutilating himself onstage. The film mentions this incident in passing once, but it doesn’t appear to know what to do with that information, because Dead is still just shown as a weird guy with some crazy ideas about life and death. In reality, his story is a terribly tragic one, and while it’s very nice and wonderfully black metal of him to have sent in his demo tape with a crucified mouse, Lords Of Chaos makes a grave error in believing that the only interesting parts of Dead’s experience are the transgressive stuff he did at shows and the famous image of how his life ended for the second and final time.
I believe that the film’s inability to say anything meaningful about black metal or its inventors stems from a basic problem with tone, which appears to be something endemic to Jonas Åkerlund’s feature films: he just can’t decide whether this is supposed to be an exciting comedy about buddies changing the world of music, a true crime documentary about grisly murders, a tragic story of friendship turned rivalry, a straight biopic of an important music scene, or even a horror movie about Dead. Of course there’s no continuity between scenes, of course there’s no stable characterization, of course there’s no explanation for any of this, of course the subjects aren’t treated with adequate import, of course there’s no deeper understanding of any of this information: the film just can’t sort out whether it wants to make you laugh, cringe, flinch, or vomit. The fact that all four may be perfectly warranted reactions doesn’t mean that there’s no legwork involved in sewing them all together. Lords Of Chaos consists of many short scenes with no impact or sense of progression, and its dialogue is regularly stilted, unnatural, and dull; the writing is not careful or skilled enough to keep the film walking its tightrope, and with the acting little better most of the time, the whole production collapses into an amateurish mess that has no hope of ever capturing anything remotely significant about black metal beyond “boy, some crazy stuff sure happened, huh?”
Given how many other crimes have been associated with black metal aside from those featured, given the robust streaks of bigotry and fascism that run deep in the scene today, given that death threats are still issued by fans to artists who aren’t tr00 enough (or happen to have the gall to play black metal while being a woman), a feature film released in the cultural climate of 2018 should have taken a much greater thematic interest in this music than Lords Of Chaos displays. I’m not saying that the movie failed because it did not take a definitive moral stance against the people it depicts or subject them to constant criticism, but you should wonder what it is that the movie cares about if not the ideas or the music. Even if there’s a lot to find funny about Immortal’s music videos and Burzum’s promo photos, even if I’m not about to let my entire identity be defined by the 30-year-old ravings of a man with the complexion and personality of a candle, I still love black metal as a musical idea, and I have at least some respect – not admiration, but respect – for the tumultuous scene that birthed it. Black metal achieved its goal. It was vicious, contrarian, belligerent, and evil. It was insane – just look at the results it produced. And yet from hearing the way they talk about the horrific events, one gets the impression that Ihsahn, Fenriz, Abbath, Faust, Gaahl, Blackthorn, and Hellhammer just don’t give a shit. They’re jovial or nostalgic, or at least unmoved by recollections. It is reckless to treat all of this as a joke in the way that Immortal did, and that’s exactly what Lords Of Chaos too often does. Faust stabbed a man 37 times and then repeatedly kicked him in the head while he lay bleeding to death. Why? “Well, because he thought it would be cool,” says Lords Of Chaos. Okay, but why did he think it would be cool? There are clearly deeply entrenched forces at work here; where’s the value in skipping over them, unless you actually don’t care and just want the blood spray? Lords Of Chaos doesn’t give a shit about the artistry, it doesn’t give a shit about the people, it doesn’t give a shit about the background, and it has nothing interesting to say about 1991 or 2018 or Dead or Faust or Dawn Of The Black Hearts or Venom or Satan or Hitler or paganism or MYFAROG. Euronymous’s map doesn’t even have Japan on it, and I just want somebody to recognize Sigh. This film clearly has no interest in explaining black metal to people who don’t already know everything that is depicted, and yet it couldn’t possibly have been made for people who have any attachment to black metal.
Much has been made of Jonas Åkerlund’s qualifications to tell this story. He grew up in the neighboring Swedish metal scene, he was briefly the second man of the famously one-man band Bathory, and he was responsible for one of the greatest music videos ever (which just so happens to feature Dead). I think that if it were not for Åkerlund’s Bathory connection giving him an ounce of credibility, this movie would be even more controversial than it already is, but that connection is really an irrelevant consideration, as far as I’m concerned. Åkerlund is a talented director of music videos. He is, in fact, a multiple-Grammy-winning director who has worked with the likes of Paul McCartney, Madonna, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Rammstein, and he’s certainly an A-lister in that world even if his feature films have been rather underwhelming so far. That’s why the best scenes in Lords Of Chaos are the horrific montages and the scenes set to music – Åkerlund does have a honed sense of rhythm and an eye for impactful framing, and the brutal scenes of Dead’s suicide and Euronymous’s murder come out as some of the most artful and competent in the whole film. But Åkerlund isn’t nearly as skilled as a film director, and regardless of his fragile connection to Norwegian black metal, he was unable to tie together all the threads that this movie attempted to follow; in the end, Lords Of Chaos is the equivalent of a 14-year-old rattling off grisly facts about black metal to impress people. Euronymous’s final sendoff is woefully comedic, the paucity of actual black metal on the soundtrack is truly frustrating, and the film, apparently for legal reasons, credits Blackthorn as simply “Varg’s driver” (which is exactly how the courts credited him, so fair play). Whatever it was trying to be – edgy, cool, informative, entertaining, revelatory, or just plain metal – it needed to be a lot more of that. It’s a mess that is fascinated with the wrong details, has nothing profound to say, and comes off as exploitative for those reasons; most of the time, it isn’t even particularly fun.
Thus we land at a 4/10. Lords Of Chaos isn’t wholly incompetent as a piece of celluloid, but it is poorly plotted, sloppily written, and intellectually bankrupt. Much like a Burzum album.
||Written on 15.09.2021 by I'm the reviewer, and that means my opinion is correct.|
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