Published on January 21st, 2019 | by Dave Scaddan


Lords of Chaos

The Broadway Theatre and the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival brought us Jonas Åkerlund’s music bio on Norwegian black metal, Lords of Chaos.  Dave reviews it.

Editor’s Note:  Special props to The Broadway Theatre and The Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival for bringing this movie in for us to be able to see.  In the last couple of years, they’ve brought in several movies that were in limited release (which we don’t usually get in Saskatoon) and even a couple of special engagements that were prior to limited release. Great film work is being done here, so don’t let it fly under your radar.

I spent much of my week wondering about this past Friday’s one-night-only screening of this film.  What would the crowd be like?  Would I be as disappointed as I have been with almost every biopic from the world of music in the last twenty-plus years?  But the question that plagued me most was, how will writer/director Jonas Åkerlund handle this story?  The music, fame, and crime that stemmed from the Norwegian Black Metal movement were the stuff of music legend, and it seemed to me that getting the tone right in a film like this — without making a documentary like Until the Light Takes Us, which has already been done — would be nigh on impossible.

Pre-screening, I figured that there were about four ways this thing could go, each with their own potential shortfalls.  Firstly, if the film took its subjects too seriously in an attempt to pay homage to the hardcore/extreme music fans likely to view it, it would be impossible not to get some of the characterization wrong.  These young men were not gods – even though they acted like they were to give their fans something to cling to – so to treat them as such would inevitably make the project a phony.

Second, if the film focused mainly on the music (Åkerlund is primarily a music video director) there would be an amazing tale about centuries-old churches being burned and murders being done in the name of metal-fealty that would have to play second-fiddle.

Thirdly, with all the crime/media/courtroom angles to this story, I figured there was a chance that Lords of Chaos might lapse into a trite crime drama where most of the audience already knows the outcome well.  I wasn’t primed to see a string of arson and homicide cases with face-paint moving through all the familiar tropes.

Fourth, I wondered why some promotional efforts had tagged this as a horror film.  I knew I would see cutting and burning and killing, I knew I’d see the cold forests of Norway as a backdrop to some terrible acts perpetrated by gothically dark figures, but a horror movie?

Åkerlund gets my nod for doing justice to this quartet of possibilities with very few slips.  The band members of Mayhem and Burzum get their moments of idolatry in the story, but they’re also consistently portrayed as frightened, bumbling boys who were great at pioneering a darker, heavier, colder brand of metal, but not so great at spearheading any kind of political or social movement.  Varg Vikernes in particular, the infamous Count Grishnackh who served a twenty-one year prison sentence for what he did in the name of his artistry, is presented as more of an all-thumbs villain than a counter-culture, straightedge mastermind, which I found to be a refreshing, somewhat unexpected take.

The church burnings that could’ve been framed as a serious social statement (as Varg surely intended they would be) are instead presented as a string of sophomoric dares gone overboard.  As such, they are exciting and giddy moments full of artful shots that make the moments seem epic, without putting their perpetrators on too high of a pedestal.  Even the darkest moments of the tale – the ones that involve murders and suicides – are delivered with the same blend of dark and light.  When I saw it, a fairly packed house of hardened metal fans were moved to expulsions of laughter in the most thematically dark scenes, and it’s Åkerlund’s treatment and pacing that made this so.

Not letting the audience ever get truly comfortable (much like Åkerlund didn’t in the 2002 crystal meth-themed movie Spun) is one of the things that keeps Lords of Chaos afloat.  The single performance scene sets an enticing tone, and from there shifts skillfully through moments of grim horror, freighted conflict, jump scares and light giggling, giving a what-will-happen-next feel to a film where everyone knows what happens next.

The one scene that focuses exclusively on the music and performance of Mayhem is a “live” scene that brings Åkerlund’s music video editing skills to the fore.  It’s all there – the inner pain of Dead as he fronts the band, the cutting, the pig heads, the utter disdain for the audience and their approval.  This element is definitely a leave-them-wanting-more approach, possibly because there were difficulties in licensing the most relevant music for use in Lords of Chaos.

Sure, one touching love scene in Lords is one too many, and the film’s take on Euronymous as a determined-yet-pretentious young musician and entrepreneur hits more notes (ambitious, controlling, paranoid, mournful, tortured, apologetic) than Rory Culkin can keep up with.  But these are small reservations that don’t take much away from what the film accomplishes.  When it opens with the old “this film is somehow narrated by a dead guy” tactic that leans too heavily on ham-handed exposition, it might have audiences cringing, dreading what’s to come.  Those who stick with it though, are in for a visceral ride – one that takes an amazing true story and manages to weave around the pitfalls.

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is a teacher who enjoys writing and talking about movies, music, and books.

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