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Rory Culkin stars in Lords of Chaos as Euronymous, the leader of the Norwegian black metal band, Mayhem. Mayhem formed in the late 80s and began to pioneer a new form of heavy metal that rejected all of the trappings of rock stardom in favor of something dark and disturbing. Picking up a new lead singer, who called himself 'Dead' (Jack Kilmer), the band became a popular live act in their home country and an underground legend for metal heads.
Mayhem's most famous moment came when 'Dead' took his own life and Euronymous snapped a picture of his friend's corpse and put it on a variant cover of the next Mayhem record. Lords of Chaos does a remarkable job of introducing Dead and actor Jack Kilmer portrays his devastating emotional problems in a fashion that is both disturbing and empathetic.
After the death of Dead, Euronymous and Mayhem continued on and encountered an enigmatic new band member. Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen) was a poseur and fan of Mayhem when he encountered Euronymous and became enthralled by his charismatic rants against the Catholic church, Euronymous' chosen enemy.
Why Catholicism? Mostly because Euronymous' particular worldview centered on his faux allegiance to Satan. Being a Satanist was his form of rebellion in a Norwegian society that didn't really have much to rebel against. Even the church wasn't much of an authority figure, most Norwegians didn't attend church.
That didn't stop Euronymous from making the church and church burning a central thesis to his worldview. Along comes Varg and he begins to take Euronymous's words to heart while also seeming to surpass him musically with his one man black metal band Burzem, which got its start on what Euronymous claimed was a record label, though it had no distribution or promotion.
Euronymous got money from his parents to open a record store where he would sell black metal records, on rare occasions, and in the basement was a clubhouse of sorts, that was home to what Euronymous called "The Black Circle," his inner circle of Black Metal hangers on. There, Euronymous would hold court until Varg began to become a bigger star.
The tension ramped up when Varg took Euronymous's calls to burn down churches into the real world. Varg began setting fires and spreading rumors that he was doing it. The faux evil that was Euronymous' brand, for lack of a better word, was now being put into actual practice and the actual fallout from these actions was real life murder.
Lords of Chaos is a tricky story to tell. Director Jonas Akerlund has to capture two distinct tones and make them work together. The pathetic and very human delusion of Euronymous has a darkly comic quality to it. His dedication to the purity of his ludicrous, dark persona is darkly comic with elements of unintentional camp. And yet, at the same time, he's also the moral center of the movie and needs to win us over in the end.
Varg as well has a pathetic yet dangerous and mentally ill quality that is also rooted in a dark sort of camp. He's the least threatening kid to look at him but he's willing to back up his delusions with violent action. The character of Varg has to be pitiable and yet kind of dangerous, like an animal backed into a corner.
The egos in play are massive and their achievements are comically small until their delusions spilled over into violence and murder. How a director is able to capture these disparate elements and make a darkly comic movie with elemental camp and also make it genuinely sad and tragic in the end. That's the trick that Jonas Akerlund pulls off and it's incredible.
A scene, ripped from real life, that captures the glorious, tragic absurdity of Varg and Euronymous and the true crime story of Norwegian black metal comes when Varg decides he needs credit for the church burnings. Against Euronymous' advice, Varg invites a reporter to his home so that he can confess. He intends to hide his identity in some way but he's comically inept and while the reporter makes vague promises to help conceal Varg's identity, his contempt for Varg is palpable, he knows he has a big story on his hand or a humorous anecdote to mock for some time forward.
Varg posing with swords and his vain attempts to control the out of control narrative he's putting out is wildly hysterical, Yet, the commitment of Varg as portrayed by Emory Cohen keeps Varg grounded in a very desperate reality. Varg may be out of his depths but his delusions are genuinely dangerous and Cohen captures these pathetic qualities in a fashion that is exceptional in its humorous discomfort.
Varg winds up in prison for a short time and becomes upset with Euronymous whose desperate desire to remain relevant in the midst of the rise of Varg is also equally comic and pathetic. Not to be out shown by Varg, Euronymous attempted to capitalize on Varg's crimes and in doing so put a target on his back as far as Varg was concerned.
The final act is a brilliant balancing act. This is a true story so I knew what was coming and I was still on the edge of my seat. Culkin does a remarkable job of winning us over to Euronymous as a tragic figure. He's desperate to live the image he's created and when he finally abandons his delusions you get a genuine sense that he could have a path forward to becoming something not pathetic, a real person and artist.
That makes the real life and filmic ending so tragic. Lords of Chaos gets us to root so deeply for Euronymous that the tragic ending doesn't feel merely inevitable, it feels truly, achingly sad. If you don't know the real story, I won't spoil it here but this is a true story so that ending is out there if you want to know. The podcast Last Podcast on the Left is a great resource for the true story of Lords of Chaos.
I was shocked at how much I loved Lords of Chaos. The film is exceptionally well acted and Jonas Akerlund's circus like balancing act of tragedy and camp is brilliant. You can't help but laugh at these characters early on and then be won over by the tragedy of where this story is headed. The character of Dead who ends up taking his own life in a grisly scene is perhaps the best metaphor for the movie. He's a pitiable figure who lives his gimmick to the point of his actual staging of his actual death.
It's sad and tragic and yet absurd all the same. That's Lords of Chaos in a nutshell. Sad, tragic, absurd and absorbingly entertaining.