Film Review: Lords of Chaos

Jack Kilmer, Jonathan Barnwell, Rory Culkin and Anthony De La Torre appear in Lords of Chaos by Jonas Åkerlund, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Director: Jonas Akerlund

Starring: Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Sky Ferreira, Jack Kilmer, Valter Skarsgård

1 hour 52 minutes

The Lords of Chaos film has been a while in the making — did you know that it was originally supposed to star Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis? Based on the book by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, this adaptation went through a few directors before former Bathory drummer Jonas Åkerlund took the helm. So from a metal cred perspective, this thing is pretty much unassailable – you don’t get more legit than a guy who not only knew the subjects of his film, but also played in one of their primary musical influences.

If you’re reading this site, you know the story of Euronymous, Faust, Dead and Varg by heart. It’s practically the extreme metal version of Macbeth. Åkerlund does a really smart thing in his telling of the tale: he doesn’t approach them like mythological figures. He approaches them as dumb fucking kids who tapped into something even they didn’t fully understand at the time. It’s also funny as Hel.

The film comes from the perspective of Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth (played by Rory Culkin). It’s the story of boy starts band, boy’s best friend kills himself in a grisly manner, boy finds new best friend, best friend turns out to be a creepy psychopath who burns down churches for funsies, boy starts to realize maybe things have gone too far, psychopath friend kills boy. The script (written by Åkerlund with Dennis Magnusson) takes some liberties for dramatic purposes, but the narrative sticks fairly close to the actual events.

It cannily mixes genres — there are wacky hijinks, meditative arthouse sequences (helped by an ethereal score from Sigur Rós), and terrifying horror movie dream sequences. It doesn’t shy away from the reality of the Black Circle’s horrific acts, either. The church burnings are portrayed as a tragic destruction of beautiful historic landmarks, and the three deaths (Dead’s suicide by shotgun, Faust’s killing of a gay man in a Lillehammer park, and Euronymous’s climactic murder at the hands of Varg) are portrayed in all their grisly detail.

The performances are top-notch. Culkin does a great job of showing how insecure Aarseth was under his bluster, making him both kind of an asshole and kind of vulnerable. Jack Kilmer (yep, Batman’s kid) brings a soulfulness to his portrayal of Dead. Emory Cohen is fascinating as Kristian “Varg” “Count Grishnakh” Vikernes, simultaneously naïve and scarily focused. You can see him building Varg’s mental palaces of self-delusion as the story progresses. He’s a dumbass, but a sociopathic dumbass. Even pop singer Sky Ferreira acquits herself well as Aarseth’s girlfriend, Ann-Marit, although she isn’t given much to do in this very male-centered world. There’s been some controversy over the director’s decision to hire a multi-national cast, but he found the right talent (and, let’s be honest, it’s easier to market if it’s in English with actors from different international territories).

But what about the music? There’s plenty of metal, but not much of it black. Mayhem is represented quite extensively (Åkerlund got permission from Aarseth’s parents), and their musical journey is conveyed over the course of the film from a shitty garage band to the professional unit displayed on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (with Attila Csihar’s son playing him in his one scene). Otherwise, it’s still a kick-ass selection from groups like Diamond Head and Accept.

Åkerlund’s most impressive feat comes in making the film accessible to both metalheads and normies. By limiting the amount of actual black metal in the film, bringing in a lot of humor, and eschewing strict adherence to events in exchange for the most satisfying narrative, he strikes a really tricky balance. It’s not perfect — some of the supporting characters don’t feel as fleshed out as they could, and since they’re a bunch of skinny white dudes wearing black, a lot of them kinda blend together. Right now the film has a poor rating on IMDb, which I suspect comes from Varg siccing his army of internet Nazi shut-ins on the film. Don’t fall for the fake hype. This is the real deal.