This tale of bad music and terrible deeds has a narrative arc that's all too familiar, tracking a Norwegian black-metal group from garage-band anonymity to breaking-news infamy.
Director Jonas Åkerlund works hard to deliver on the title of “Lords of Chaos,” a tale of bad music and terrible deeds.
Inspired by a true story, the movie ladles up lots of pulpy bits and buckets of blood to tell a depressing, depressingly familiar story about what happens when young men with apparent means and a whole lot of free time get together to build their own precariously hermetic world. In this case, their clubhouse was the Norwegian black-metal scene of the 1980s and early ’90s, which combined anomie with face paint, speed metal and Linda Blair’s devilish vocalizations from “The Exorcist.”
Norwegian black metal started to make mainstream news when some of its adherents were arrested on charges of murder, arson and other crimes. (They torched churches.) The bleak story is charted in the book “Lords of Chaos,” whose sensationalist subtitle — “The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground” — could serve as the movie’s elevator pitch (though “rise and fall” would be more accurate for the movie). Written by Åkerlund and Dennis Magnusson, the screen version centers on Oystein Aarseth (a nicely slippery Rory Culkin), an entrepreneurial musician and professed Satanist who adopts the stage name Euronymous, after a Greek flesh-eating demon.
The movie’s subject is ostensibly outré, but the narrative arc is all too familiar, tracking Oystein’s journey with his group Mayhem from garage-band anonymity to breaking-news infamy. In a voice-over that skews (for reasons you learn later) more sardonic than Culkin’s on-screen performance, Oystein lays out his origin story (he takes credit for inventing Norwegian black metal) and fills in the world he helped make. He’s selling a band and a flamboyant brand that grow more nihilistic and death-oriented as their notoriety and followers increase. One minute, the band is just a motley crew of hard-playing party monsters; the next, one guy is turning fragments of a dead bandmate’s shattered skull into jewelry.
Most Read Entertainment Stories
- Bill Gates reveals his summer 2019 reading list recommendations
- Seattle theater community holds fundraiser for local actors whose daughter was diagnosed with cancer
- You can’t rush perfection. ‘Game of Thrones’ tried and came out like an undercooked Hot Pocket.
- Ballard Jazz Festival celebrates Seattle's vibrant jazz scene and 20th anniversary of 'Speakin' Out' album
- Review: Death Cab for Cutie, ODESZA's Bellingham love fest starts summer early VIEW
Åkerlund, a veteran music-video director who intersperses “Lords of Chaos” with mildly surrealistic bursts, never establishes a coherent or interesting point of view. The tone unproductively veers from the goofy to the creepy, which creates a sense that he was still figuring it out in the editing. He skates over the story’s sociopolitical stakes but goes hard on the cheap shocks: a dead cat hanging from a ceiling like a fixture, bozo fans gnawing on a severed pig’s head mid-concert, close-ups of knives digging and plunging into bodies.
It’s never clear why things go as wrong as they do, other than Oystein’s brand marketing was disastrously successful. The character here certainly has a gift for dubious choices and bad company, including a singer portentously named Dead (Jack Kilmer, exuding low-key, melancholic charisma), and a creepy enthusiast, Kristian Vikernes (Emory Cohen), aka Varg, aka Count Grishnackh. Periodically someone rails against religion and conformity for a bit of lukewarm rebel posing, but all this soon sounds like a broken record at a party you’d like to leave. Far more effective is a scene in which a blank young man relaxes in his middle-class home shortly before killing a stranger for no reason at all.
“Lords of Chaos,” with Rory Culkin, Jack Kilmer, Emory Cohen. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund, from a screenplay by Åkerlund and Dennis Magnusson, based on a book by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind. 118 minutes. Rated R for strong brutal violence, disturbing behavior, grisly images, strong sexuality, nudity, and pervasive language. Grand Illusion, through Thursday, Feb. 28. The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.