If the phrase “true Norwegian black metal” draws a blank, perhaps it’s because one of the more maligned hard rock genres of the past 25 years never exactly went mainstream. For a relatively obscure offshoot of heavy metal, however, black metal appears to have quite a few conflicting claims among potential progenitors. Whatever its exact origins, the characteristically loud, up-tempo, vaguely Satanic style reached its height of expression in Norway during the late 1980s, when local musicians took the movement to extremes of arson and murder to prove themselves its most authentic adherents.
Whether director Jonas Akerlund’s vibrant biopic of the Norwegian underground music scene successfully unearths the beyond-bizarre rivalry of competing bands to galvanize contemporary audiences, the film will inevitably need to confront the inherent apathy and timidity of mainstream rock and pop fans before finding a suitable niche.
Akerlund (Horsemen) approaches the Norwegian black metal scene in part via an account of the movement provided by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind’s nonfiction Lords of Chaos, concerning the emergence of Mayhem. The intentionally extreme Oslo band, co-founded by Oystein Aarseth (aka “Euronymous”), took the medievalist trappings of the early black metal groups and refined them into a toxic mixture of rage and violence.
Played by a thin, pale Rory Culkin sporting long, stringy hair, Euronymous appears to have had a fairly conventional childhood, only getting into metal as a teen with the formation of Mayhem. Early in the film, he invokes his vision of himself as an evil disrupter in the role of the band’s lead guitarist: “I was brought into this world to create chaos, suffering and death,” he dramatically intones.
Point taken, mission accomplished, as the film eventually makes clear in sometimes gory detail. Akerlund finds fertile material here, relying on his instincts as the former drummer for Swedish metal band Bathory in the 1980s and his impressive credits directing music videos for the likes of U2, Madonna and Lady Gaga. He’s not inclined to take the scene as seriously as his subjects though, layering in abundant irony and dark humor as he tracks Mayhem’s ascendancy from suburban rock brats to most-wanted urban terrorists.
Initially Mayhem doesn’t manage to achieve much recognition until the addition of Swedish vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), known as “Dead,” on lead vocals. With a flair for showmanship, he boosts the band’s profile with electrifying live performances and a personal aesthetic centering on death and decay. His dedication to shock-rock theatrics and a penchant for cutting himself with knives and bottles onstage extends into his personal life as his fascination with self-harm culminates in a dramatic suicide.
Now short a key bandmember, Euronymous puts Mayhem on hiatus and begins producing black metal bands on his own label out of his record store Helvete (“Hell”) in Oslo, at the same time exploiting Dead’s suicide as marketing material to enhance Mayhem’s dark reputation. The ploy succeeds in part by attracting solo musician Kristian “Varg” Vikernes (Emory Cohen), recording under the name Burzum. Ingratiating himself as a Mayhem fan, Varg wheedles his way into a contract with Euronymous’ Deathlike Silence Productions, setting off an intense rivalry between the two regarding who is the more authentic black metal musician.
Only it turns out that Euronymous isn’t really prepared for the vehemence of Varg’s convictions, never expecting that anyone would take his casually cruel remarks about burning churches literally. Before long, though, Varg has a series of church arsons to brag about, leaving Euronymous looking lame by comparison and wondering if he should get in on the action too.
This tipping point becomes the most telling twist in the development of their very twisted relationship. Culkin craftily shifts Euronymous’ attitude from superiority and contempt for perceived posers outside the black metal circle to reluctant awe in the face of Varg’s depredations. However, his downcast eyes and sidelong glances reveal that he doesn’t actually have as much conviction behind his own extreme opinions as some of those who mistakenly take him at his word.
Cohen faces the starker challenge of managing Varg’s transformation from uneasy outsider to menacing insider, but gets valuable assistance from several terrifying church-burning scenes spectacularly staged by Akerlund. Singer-songwriter Sky Ferreira as a rock photographer and Euronymous’ girlfriend Anne-Marit has just enough screen time to pique interest; more substantial roles surely await following this slow-burning, low-key performance.
As a depiction of the very public emergence of a marginal movement, Lords of Chaos provokes both awe and repulsion, but not necessarily admiration for a musical form and subculture unwaveringly devoted to literalism, no matter how extreme. Akerlund’s choice of Icelandic avant-garde orchestral rockers Sigur Ros as a counterpoint on the film’s evocative soundtrack seems to affirm however that the unknowable holds far more fascination than the unrelentingly obvious.
Production companies: Insurgent Media, Vice Films
Cast: Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Valter Skarsgard, Anthony De La Torre
Director: Jonas Akerlund
Screenwriters: Dennis Magnusson, Jonas Akerlund
Producers: Kwesi Dickson, Danny Gabai, Jim Czarnecki, Erik Gordon, Jack Arbuthnott, Ko Mori
Executive producers: Eddy Moretti, Shane Smith, Vincent Landay, Natalie Farrey, Ashley Richardson, Adam Parfrey, Carlo Dusi, Jonas Akerlund
Director of photography: Par M. Ekberg
Production designer: Emma Fairley
Costume designer: Susie Coulthard
Editor: Rickard Krantz
Music: Sigur Ros
Casting director: Dan Hubbard
Sales: Vice Films
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Not rated, 112 minutes