CJ’s review published on Letterboxd:
I have Thoughts. With a capital T. So this is going to be a long post. Sorry.
I guess I should start by putting this into context because I suspect most people are probably going to find this film perfectly enjoyable and wonder why I'm being so joyless. I admit I'm basically the butthurt fanboy of black metal. All those nerds moaning about Star Wars or Ghostbusters and ruined childhoods. That's me here, sure. I admit it. But I'm at least going to try and justify why I feel that way.
I love black metal. I loved it in the 1990s. I love it now. Back then, I was in a black metal band. I wrote black metal songs. I was active in the tape trading network. I felt like it was music that connected with me on a really deep level. I even have black metal tattoos. I like a ton of other music too but black metal is special to me.
THAT SAID, I wasn't ever the drummer in Bathory. Jonas Akerlund, who directed Lords of Chaos was. So that kinda trumps any claim to black metal credibility I may have. I realise this.
However, as much as I was "there" as a fan of black metal in the 90s, I had no real life connection to any of the protagonists in this story. Nor did Akerlund, who by that stage, was in L.A. trying to make it in the film industry. So I guess both of our interpretations of what "true Norwegian black metal" really was are exactly that. Interpretations. But it seems we're coming from very different places.
Lords of Chaos tells the story of Mayhem, arguably the first "true Norwegian black metal band" and frames itself around the band leader, Euronymous (played by Rory Culkin). Mayhem are on a mission to be the most extreme metal band in the world and when Euronymous meets Varg Vikernes (played by Emory Cohen) - the mastermind behind one-man black metal project Burzum - it leads to a series of now-infamous crimes and one ultimate tragedy.
Perhaps the main problem Lords Of Chaos faces is that it's part music biopic and part true crime film and these genres are at odds with one another. One deifies and the other villifies its subject (traditionally, simplistically speaking). That said, both are perhaps built around the question of "why?" In true crime, we want to know what led to the criminal behaviour. In music biopics, we want to know why this music was important, why it meant anything and what made these people artists worthy of a film. Lords of Chaos, by mashing the two questions together, doesn't manage an adequate answer for either.
On the music side, it portrays black metal as a joke. I admit it's a widely-held belief that Euronymous - despite whatever musical and aesthetic genius he possessed - was at least conscious of marketing and commerciality but here he's almost portrayed like he thinks the whole thing is just trolling. Satan sells, basically, and that's why he's involved. Varg is portrayed through the lens of the 2010s and is a pudgy, squeaky-voiced manchild who goes from embarrassingly liking the Scorpions to magically becoming Burzum out of nowhere because he's scared of being called a poseur. I'm not defending him as a person at all but I think there was a lot more to why he turned out the way he did than the cartoonish simplicity on offer here. His exposure to racism/nationalism in childhood and the development of these beliefs into adolescence is more or less ignored. There's one clumsy joke that's essentially bad foreshadowing early on ("I don't drink or eat meat" / "Oh, like Hitler?" / [Varg grins proudly] "Yeah, just like Hitler") and that's your shorthand for "yeah, he's bad". And certainly any nuance to the character is completely absent. It would've been a fun quirk if nothing else just to see him do some tabletop roleplaying, which he loved, but nope - far too three dimensional for this film.
The "black metal" scene in general is shown like something out of The Decline Of Western Civilisation Part II. While Varg gratuitously fucks his way through a bunch of nude groupies, Mayhem are beer-swilling, hard-partying rock star wannabes and, to be honest... while I'm not saying this sort of thing never happened at all, I do feel like it was the opposite of what black metal was trying to be and muddies the waters of its portrayal (I also suspect they all spent more time playing D&D than having sex). Viewers who are new to the genre would maybe find it hard to differentiate this, culturally and philosophically, from just being hard rock. Black metal fans will know that was the antithesis of its ideas.
I feel like they felt they almost HAVE to make the music look dumb to avoid any form of implicit approval of the crimes they're portraying - and I'm definitely not saying they should portray these people as Gods or heroes because, all else aside, they did some terrible things - but then what you're then left with is borderline satire. Which seems even more tasteless, especially given that many people affected by the events in the film are still alive. Will they appreciate a comedy about it?
I was going to say that Lords of Chaos does for black metal what Four Lions does for religious fundamentalism but I felt at least Four Lions made more of an effort to compassionately understand its tragic protagonists (while sending up their beliefs). Lords of Chaos never feels like it cares about who they are or why they do what they do. It has some comedic scenes (some of which are genuinely funny out of context) but then wants to manipulate the audience into a contrasting emotion by portraying the violent crimes as savagely and starkly as possible. The gore FX are spectacular and realistic but I felt like this extremity wasn't earned by the tongue-in-cheek approach to the storytelling. It felt like a cheap shot.
I've already mentioned Varg is a cartoon villain but Euronymous, when he needs to be the heart of the film that can cohere the tonal jumble, is reduced to a collection of cinematic shortcuts. To symbolise that he's "growing up", he's given glasses and eventually - sentimentally - the Smart Haircut of Responsiblity! The message this gets across ("Cut your hair! Grow out of this nonsense! Quick! Or you might go mad and kill people!") is nothing short of puritanical. I definitely got the impression that the film was saying that you shouldn't like metal as anything more than a lark. While I, of course, don't approve of being so into extreme metal you commit a bunch of awful crimes, I think metal has so so so much depth than it's given here and can mean so much, in so many ways, to the people who love it.
I think the film could've benefited from picking a scope. It consciously chooses to focus on a wider scene than just Varg and Euronymous but not wide enough to properly include any of the other key bands. It feels like it takes place in a vacuum. The worst example of where it fails on this is the depiction of Faust from Emperor. He's seen in the background of many shots, watching horror movies, and his first noticeable line of dialogue is where he walks up to Euronymous and randomly asks what it would feel like to put a knife in someone. This is very clunky, shoehorned foreshadowing for the scene where he goes and stabs a homosexual in a park. I feel like the film didn't earn the right to such a harrowing scene from an insignificant background character. It feels oddly sensationalist, the way it focuses on the crimes more than the people behind them or, more damagingly, the music.
I dunno. It's hard to explain. I feel like a smaller film about just the two main players could've worked as a piece exploring their idealogy. Or you could've tried something bigger that explored more of the bands involved and what they were trying to achieve. Aside from Mayhem, none of the bands authorized their music for use in the film and it really is the elephant in the room. It's hard to understand why black metal is something that still very much perpetuates to this day when you can't hear the sound of Burzum, Darkthrone or Emperor. It also robs the viewer of the kind of visceral experience you get with, say, Straight Outta Compton where you can hear these songs booming out of a cinema screen. (Although I criticised that film for venerating its subjects... so yeah, biopics are tricky!)
What was always compelling to me about black metal was how a genre with such hateful roots could create something as beautiful as it did. The music, made by borderline lunatics and misanthropes with intention to upset, was aggressive but also melancholic, atmospheric and spiritual. Yes, it was extreme but if all you want is extreme, you've got "Swedish life metal" for that. Black metal had a depth and a mysterious nature; a magic that made it unique amongst metal subgenres and still does. That's completely ignored here. Black metal is just treated as "turning it up to 11" idiocy. Which again just gives the film a feeling of archness, of looking down its nose at its subject.
I don't know. There are some positive things here. The FX, as I mentioned, are superb. Rory Culkin gives a stunning performance as Euronymous. It's very well shot. The church burning scenes are suitably fearsome. I kept trying to convince myself to like it because I really, really wanted to. I still want the black metal film I've always dreamed about to exist. But this isn't it. The more I thought about Lords of Chaos, the sadder I got.
I'm not angry. Just disappointed.