Review: Lords of Chaos Is Highly Entertaining and Deeply Flawed
I doubt the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center has ever before hosted a screening so full of people in metal band shirts as they did for last night’s screening of Lords of Chaos, which was, for unclear reasons, the closing night selection for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s eleventh annual Scary Movies festival. I spotted a Sodom shirt, a Drudkh shirt, an unimaginative dude in a Mayhem shirt, and even a very brave guy in a The Fall of Troy shirt. Starting tomorrow, this same venue will begin hosting a revival of the Russian art house classic Andrei Rublev. Kind of amazing.
Maybe even more amazing: that after years of talking about making Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s book into a movie, they actually did it! And I’ve seen it!
So how was it? Well, here are my random thoughts:
It’s surprisingly funny. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund from a screenplay he co-wrote with Dennis Magnusson, Lords of Chaos isn’t afraid to acknowledge some of black metal’s goofier elements. As a result, they’re able to wring a lot of humor from the posturing of Euronymous (Rory Culkin) and Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen); their first meeting features a guffaw-worthy instance of metal elitism that I won’t spoil here, and a scene where Varg tries to impress a local reporter is especially droll.
There’s also some solid gallows humor, such as the method by which Euronymous cheers up his suicidally depressed friend and bandmate, Dead (Jack Kilmer). Again, I won’t spoil it here, but… it got one of the biggest laughs at the screening I attended.
The cast is mostly great. Culkin and Cohen, especially, deserve praise. Åkerlund and Magnusson have written them some multifaceted roles that require they alternately be scary and ridiculous and vulnerable all at once, and they sink their teeth into ’em. The movie largely hinges on the relationship between these two, and they completely sell it. Hats off.
It’s an easy sit. For all it’s flaws, the movie is fast-paced and never boring. I mention this because I’m about to come down on it pretty hard but I want you to know it’s not a bad movie. If you were like “Yo Axl, should I go see Lords of Chaos on Saturday night?”, I’d be like, “Sure.” I just wouldn’t be like “YES! GET TICKETS NOW!!!”
So, having said that…
The cast isn’t all great. Kilmer in particular is lousy; there’s a scene where Dead dares Euronymous to kill him, and he delivers a performance so inauthentic and forced as to elicit unintended snickers.
I’m more hesitant to criticize Sky Ferreira, who plays a photographer that inexplicably falls for Euronymous, because her role is so thinly written that it’s hard to get a read on her actual abilities as a thespian. The character — one of only two females to have anything resembling substantial dialogue — seems to exist mostly to get naked. There’s one scene in particular, in which Varg orders her to undress for himself and Euronymous and she obliges for no discernible reason, that feels egregious; other than being one of the first hints of Varg’s dickishness, it does nothing to move the story forward. And the fact that her relationship with Euronymous feels so tacked-on becomes even more a problem when you consider that…
The filmmakers try, and fail, to make Euronymous sympathetic. His arc, as presented here, is to go from leader to confessed non-believer. He’s given a lot of speeches about who is true and who is a poseur, and how he hates Swedish “life metal” (yuck yuck) because the bands don’t practice what they preach and really just wanna rock out and party, but ultimately, we’re shown, he just wants to rock out and party. The movie, in other words, posits that Euronymous didn’t mean any of the stuff he said — he just wanted to sell records and be a famous rock star. Kind of hilariously, the movie has him cutting his hair and putting on a button-down shirt (gasp!) literally right before Varg shows up to murder him.
But there’s virtually no mention of all the horrible, bigoted shit Euronymous said. In fact, the movie generally glosses over Euronymous and Varg’s disgusting politics. Varg is shown hanging Nazi flags in his apartment and using a slur against homosexuals, and at one point he criticizes Faust (Valter Skarsgård — how many goddamn Skarsgårds are there, anyway?!?!), who often throws a Nazi salute while drunkenly partying, of being a “fake Nazi.” The movie also suggests it was all just for shock value and none of these guys really cared about any of that ideology. Thing is, all this time later, Varg Vikernes is still preaching this shit. It’s kinda weird to just ignore all this stuff. (Come to think of it, the whole movie could probably use a postscript; there’s no mention of the survivors’ ultimate fates, or even the fact that Mayhem and other bands from this scene still exist today.)
Still, the decision to present Euronymous this way might actually be alright from the point of view of making a narrative movie — this is, after all, not a documentary — but they don’t even do it right. They give him one quick scene with a little sister, who then disappears for the rest of the movie, only to return later, after Euronymous has been murdered, to look sad. Then they cut to some quick shots of his photographer girlfriend lady crying. It’s like, “Look! Euronymous was basically a good guy! He had women in his life who loved him!” It’s cheap shorthand, and dramatically speaking, it doesn’t land.
In fact, there’s too much dramatic shorthand in general. See also: Euronymous’ entire relationship with Dead. We’re told the two had some kind of special bond, but we never actually see that bond, so when a dead Dead haunts Euronymous’ nightmares, it has no real impact. Part of the problem is that it takes its cues from Goodfellas and utilizes a LOT of voice-over narration — it honestly might be twenty minutes into the movie before there’s any substantial dialogue between two characters. Until then, we’re mostly told, not shown, whatever we need to know. It finally slows down to breathe after Dead kills himself and Varg shows up; so much so, in fact, that I wonder if there wasn’t a longer cut with a more developed first half.
There’s no psychological insight into the creation of black metal. The story is basically an escalating war of male machismo enacted by posturing adolescents from well-to-do families; first Euronymous says “We should burn down a church!”, then Varg actually does burn down a church, then Faust kills a gay man, and so on and so forth, with each act of oneupmanship inspiring the next. But there’s not a lot of actual context given as to why any of these dudes started down this path in the first place. I was surprised to notice Euronymous’ mom listed as a character in the credits, because I can’t remember her ever being introduced in the movie. She might call to him from off-camera once near the beginning. I’m not saying the movie needed a whole lot of kitchen sink psychology, but it needed something, y’know?
For a movie about music, it has surprisingly little to say about music. Euronymous gets a line of narration that’s something to the effect of “I created a new subgenre of music that changed the world forever!”, without ever explaining what it was about black metal that made it seem so fresh and exciting in the first place. Similarly, Dead and Varg are presented as geniuses, but we’re never told why they’re geniuses. Heck, Faust probably has as much screen time as any other supporting character in the movie, and Emperor are never mentioned once — in fact, to watch the movie, you’d think Faust was just some dude who worked at the record shop owned by Euronymous. Attila Csihar appears briefly, but is never named aloud, and I didn’t even realize one dude was meant to be Fenriz until the credits told me so. My date, who is not a metal fan, left the movie knowing no more about the differences between black metal and doom metal and grindcore than she did going in. For viewers like her, Lords of Chaos will ostensibly be a movie about stupid rich brats… and while the Black Circle were, at least in part, spoiled rich brats, that’s not the sole reason we’re still talking about them twenty-five-years later. As a former drummer for Bathory who made his name as filmmaker directing videos for bands like Metallica, Åkerlund seems uniquely positioned to explain to general audiences why they should care about black metal. He doesn’t even try. Frankly, it’s a little bizarre.
The people portrayed in Lords of Chaos will HATE this movie. Especially Varg Vikernes, who is portrayed as a sniveling weasel and an idiot. And you know what? I’m okay with that. That fucker’s legacy should be that of a sniveling weasel and an idiot.
So, there you have it. They made a Lords of Chaos movie, and it’s not bad. But it definitely could have been better.
The flick still has no official release date, but we’ll keep you in the loop. In the meantime, here’s the Åkerlund-directed video for Metallica’s “ManUNkind,” featuring the Lords of Chaos cast spending more time pretending to be musicians than they do in the entirety of the film: