It’s all fun and games until someone loses a soul. That’s the glib message of Jonas Åkerlund’s “Lords of Chaos,” a loose, thin and bloody romp through the early days of the grisly rock subculture known as Norwegian black metal, which emerged in the late ’80s as a doubling down on black metal’s shock tactics — Satanism, misanthropy, necromania — but which also fed a nascent criminality in its less psychologically stable adherents.
Foremost in that camp were members of the influential glower-and-growl band Mayhem, started by Øystein Aarseth aka Euronymous (Rory Culkin), a stringy-haired suburban basement jammer turned black metal ideologue, record store owner, label founder and savvy brand custodian. With one corpse-painted eye on nurturing what he called a “black metal inner circle” and the other on a projected genuineness — “I was brought into this world to create suffering, chaos and death,” he narrates for us — Aarseth was the proverbial music impresario, just one who preferred cagily selling a doom-laden nightmare to hawking a tired fantasy of upbeat rock ’n’ roll bliss.
But his hardcore mindset put him in the path of distinctly troubled believers in the cause, starting with a Swedish frontman who called himself “Dead” (Jack Kilmer) and liked to inhale the fumes of putrefying roadkill before shows, then slice his arms onstage to the eyes-widened delight of spattered fans. Eventually Dead turns a shotgun on himself, and when Aarseth discovers the blood-drenched scene, our showman protagonist sees opportunity, not loss: take a few pictures, fashion necklaces from bone bits and send a message to everyone that Mayhem isn’t kidding around. They’re the band whose lead singer blew his head off!
So is this kind of material tragic or comic, celebratory or off-putting? Unless you’re a connoisseur who knows the outcome, the appearance of fan-turned-band member Varg Virkenes is another occasion to howl and grimace equally, in that actor Emory Cohen’s exaggeratedly pursed, coiled vibe is almost laughably that of a sociopathic weirdo any right-minded person would avoid. That Virkenes’ and Aarseth’s relationship ended in paranoid rivalry and hideous violence is, again, either terrible or marketably fortuitous, depending on your outlook. There are times “Lords of Chaos” is less a black metal tale than a black comedy of manners, which Culkin, incidentally, handles with straight-man aplomb. (One almost wishes the explanatory narration were excised, and Culkin could just turn to the camera and roll his eyes.)
Though it’s basically about a bunch of callow, immoral, politically wretched kids — and one superficially drawn gal hanger-on (Sky Ferreira) added like an afterthought — “Lords” would appear to have a sympathetic, non-judgmental chronicler in Åkerlund (“Polar’), a music video stalwart (including clips for Madonna and Lady Gaga) who started out as drummer for acclaimed Swedish black metal outfit Bathory. And as presented here, the story of Mayhem — based on a notorious popular history by two journalists and adapted by Åkerlund with Dennis Magnusson — is decidedly friskier about such things as church bombings and premeditated homicide. Åkerlund likes the immediacy of an awful act, and he shows a greater degree of cinematic intensity in depicting gruesome stabbings than in the intricacies of a rock sound, indicating Åkerlund believes a music movie isn’t as thrilling as a horror biopic.
But there’s also an unmistakable tone of jokey disdain for hollow youth, whether in the repeated shots of band members leaving their parents’ homes (“Bye, mom!”) or the comical debates about evil authenticity between Aarseth and Virkenes. Ultimately it all adds up to a hodgepodge of styles and attitudes with hardly any insight into what made this corrosive clique so magnetic to its adherents. “Lords of Chaos” is two hours of boys behaving badly, but somehow forgets that the devil is in the details.
‘Lords of Chaos’
Rated: R, for strong brutal violence, disturbing behavior, grisly images, strong sexuality, nudity and pervasive language
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: In general release