You know how you might be scrolling through the internet and you see friends and acquaintances participating in something and your immediate reaction is, “Ugh, I can’t believe these people, I’ll never be caught DEAD doing that because I am too cool for it and would rather do this OTHER thing which will make me look INFINITELY cooler when other people see me doing it!” Well, now imagine you like metal, live in Norway, and it’s the ’90s. Well, if that’s the case, you’ll end up creating a musical style that is “darker” and “more evil” than everything anyone else is playing, which you’ll call “black metal.” Oh, and if you are so committed to this “cause” that you murder people, then you’re the characters in Lords of Chaos, which explores the burgeoning black metal scene, specifically through the eyes of the real-life musicians responsible for Mayhem and Burzum. Lords of Chaos is a twisted and compelling exploration of posers who define themselves by being edgier than their peers and who are so detached from reality that they don’t realize that they’re the ones putting up a front yet have the privilege and means to “fake it ’til they make it.”
Fans of this blog will know that this is usually the part where I describe the plot, yet the plot is so bananas that it must be seen to be believed. Making matters more interesting is that, while some details are dramatized, the more horrific and shocking elements are lifted from the actual metal scene in Norway, which you could learn about through a quick Wikipedia browse. Let’s just say there are murders, suicides, animal sacrifices, church burnings, and young boys trying to look scary by painting their faces with makeup.
You might notice that I’ve categorized this film as both a “horror movie” and also a “non-horror movie.” Pretty weird, huh? Allow me to explain! The film isn’t horrifying in the traditional sense in that there’s some sort of serial killer or supernatural force that motivates the narrative, so in that regard, it’s definitely not a horror movie. However, the events that unfold are deeply unsettling, not only in its depictions of horrible violence, but also in the ways these privileged youths compose themselves and will rattle you to your core. The narrative, as well as the true-life events that inspired it, is a game of one-upmanship that leads our characters to commit disturbing things.
What makes director Jonas Åkerlund‘s depictions of this story so effective is that he never tries to make the characters look cool, because they, well, aren’t. While there is surely an air of mystique to how such a bizarre subgenre of music came together, what with the images of bands wearing corpse paint and what seems to be an infatuation with the devil, the director makes it quite clear that these kids chose to wear corpse paint and worship the devil, really for no other reason than to fabricate an image of themselves that would inspire this mystique. Decades later, there are still people intimidated by such figures, with Lords of Chaos showing that the founders of this “movement” were as insecure as anyone.
Another strength of the film is that, while we might relate to feelings of teenage angst or depression, Åkerlund focuses on empathy over sympathy. These kids (who become adults throughout the film) are frustrated by all of the things every teen must encounter in their adolescence, yet it appears as though no one was around to keep them in check. We can feel bad for someone struggling with depression, sure, but when they reveal that they like to kill cats as performative evil, we stop caring about how their journey turns out. The acts of violence, sadism, and racism are all injected into the story with appropriate timing to snap you back to reality when you begin to feel sorry for the characters and these acts are depicted objectively, as these assholes really were that awful, regardless of whether or not you liked the sounds their musical instruments made.
Here’s the thing: the story of the founding of Mayhem and the birth of black metal is an intrinsically Norwegian story, so when the film begins and the American actors are speaking in very American accents, it’s a little…jarring. Days later, I’m still trying to come to grips with this. Take a movie like David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for example, where all of the actors put on phony Swedish accents while speaking English, only for various signage around the scenery to be written in Swedish. Kinda weird, but the movie is meant to be more accessible to American audiences than the original films and it at least makes sense that this authenticity had to be sacrificed. Having all of these Norwegian characters speaking without a hint of an accent, only for various ancillary characters to show up and speak with Norwegian accents took me out of the experience multiple times. Admittedly, this could be another way that the director wanted to make the central characters stand out from the rest of their community, subconsciously showing how these protagonists never fit in, but you, too, might just be thrown off by the whole thing and raise an eyebrow when Rory Culkin says, “True Norwegian black metal,” in perfect American. I couldn’t help but wish Scandinavian actors could have been found for the necessary roles, with this core component making the film feel more committed to accessibility than to authenticity. There’s also the argument that this adds another layer to the performative nature of the narrative, but I think I’m just talking myself in circles at this point and you can see what I’m getting at.
While I can’t say anyone will enjoy watching Lords of Chaos, it’s a fascinating exploration of a unique time in metal’s history, in addition to delivering a cautionary tale of leading a performative life. If you feel evil, be evil, but don’t be evil just because you want to prove you’re more evil than anyone else, because then you will become the ultimate poser and might as well put on your corpse paint to go to the mall.
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