Based on “truth, lies and what actually happened”, Polar director Jonas Akerlund’s frenetic and frequently gruelling (but fun) foray into the birth of Norwegian Black Metal is surprisingly side-splitting as well as dark and disturbing. Akerlund shines a light on the scene and some of its key characters in a manner to make it resound as a tale that should be sought out and (maybe) enjoyed by audiences beyond the genre’s reach, but it is definitely not for the faint hearted or those with weak stomachs.
In Oslo 1987, metal band Mayhem are hell-bent on breaking boundaries by upping the ante (volume, disorder and musical extremities) in the name of their “art” and hope to find a record company/ fan base to embrace them. After their original drummer leaves and lead singer commits suicide, guitarist “Euronymous” (Rory Culkin) adopts avid fan Varg (Emory Cohen) as Mayhem’s new front-man, but Varg’s passion and psychosis shift the group and their sound into darker more frightening terrain, segregating the musicians from each other and Mayhem from their industry/ fans.
Based on the book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rites of the Satanic Metal Underground, by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind, director Akerlund (one time rehearsal drummer for Swedish metal band Bathory) and co-writer Dennis Magnusson’s screenplay hurls viewers screaming face first into black metal hell before unveiling the slow psychotic deterioration that accompanied such flippant, malicious disorder. Topped and tailed with a punchy narration by Culkin, Lords of Chaos imparts with an infected, severed tongue in cheek. The script tells most of the subculture’s stories from a sardonic, scornful stance, before becoming a frightening tale of self-harm, suicide and murder.
Beneath the plastic macho BS and bloodshed beats a comedic heart that courses black blood through damaged veins but casts a much needed light on the ersatz darkness at the music scene’s core, which Varg made real. Fragile male egos compete then shatter and act as catalysts/ drive for the plot. Amongst montages of volcanic spewing, retching, head banging, glass smashing and vodka quaffing are flawed but captivating characters whose journeys make Lords of Chaos more than just a film for metal fans, but a study of frightened and fractured personalities hiding behind facades.
Culkin’s Euronymous (not a constellation) is “based on former Mayhem guitarist Oystein Aarseth” and serves as the anti-hero along with his partner Ann-Marit (Sky Ferreira): a fictional character, with whom the audience can also relate to. The couple are the pragmatic voice of reason protagonists; amidst the musical mayhem, managing a record shop to make end’s meet while trying to make Mayhem a name.
Lords of Chaos mostly pits alpha male banter battle between Euronymous and Varg which buds into action speaking louder than words, or screaming, gruff vocals from band ditties. From tossing dead cats to wrist slitting on stage and burning down churches, the acts of depravity coil out of control and eventually lead to the killings that made Mayhem infamous. Akerlund’s film serves as less of a harrowing account, but simmers with themes which boil above subtext to make it a surprisingly vivacious yet noxious concoction of dry comedy, retina detonating violence and lobe exploding “music”, that makes it commanding, captivating and excessive metal viewing.