Lords of Chaos Movie Review - A Culkin plays Euronymous and Val Kilmer's son plays Dead...what?

Saturday, September 29, 2018

I know I know.  I was supposed to post Part II of my vacation photo dump and a recipe for the most calorie dense vegan mac n cheese I've ever made/eaten/breathed near, but I've been busy AF. Don't worry though, I have a recipe for artichoke and mushroom lasagna and some other good stuff on the way soon.

However, I caught a screening of Jonas Akerlund's Lords of Chaos movie last night.  For the readers that don't know, I've been a Black Metal fan for about 18 years (can that be right?! Fact check - yes, I'm old) and while I'm no expert and my fandom has gone down increasingly in recent years, I'm still fairly familiar with the events depicted in the movie and even wrote my MFA thesis about how Black Metal was essentially performance art. I've read the book the movie is based on and honestly didn't love or hate it (though I found some interviews and passages useful), and didn't have high hopes for the film version.  Making a movie about something like this, that has die-hard fans and a cult-like following is tricky and sometimes better left alone.  But I did see it, and here are my thoughts about it.

The movie begins with Rory Culkin as Euronymous giving us a 20 minute voice-over about his story and what this movie will be about.  I really am not a fan of voice overs.  This opening would have been much more effective if we were shown what was going on and were allowed to connect with these characters rather than told what to expect.  Also, the only people in the movie that had accents were the actual Scandinavian actor, Valter Skarsgård (Faust) and German actor Wilson Gonzalez (Blackthorn).  The rest of the cast speaks with a distinct American accent and Sky Ferreira has a distracting Southern California drawl. Oh yeah, Sky Ferreira is in this (more on that later). Jonas Akerlund has said that he consciously made the movie in English because he didn't want to "make a Norwegian film," but the inconsistency with accents was distracting. After a lengthy voice-over sequence showing Euronymous at home with his loving family (complete with Volvo in the driveway), dying his hair in the bathroom and ruining his mom's white towels, and having a squabble with his little sister who just simply will NOT respect band practice, we are introduced to Dead.  I really enjoyed the beginning, minus voice-over, and who among us can't identify with trying to be evil in mom and dad's house? This movie is humorous and is at it's best when it knows what it is, and acknowledges the inherent silliness of Black Metal, while also showing us that these kids engaged in actual evil.

Dead is one of my favorite Black Metal personalities, and Jack Kilmer just couldn't cut it (er, no pun intended).  Kilmer's wig is atrocious, and his acting is just not on par with the rest.  Honestly, aside from Ferreira and Kilmer, this movie is acted really well.  Dead and Euronymous are supposed to have this kinship and mutual respect that we told, not shown, in this film.  I'm also not entirely sure that's how their relationship actually was.  The scenes with Dead could have been really powerful, but Kilmer wasn't as charismatic as Culkin and it made Dead's role in this film a little flat.  The suicide scene, while graphic and exceptionally uncomfortable, was handled with respect.  We are with Dead for the duration of his death, and forced to watch the result of his crippling depression.  Multiple accounts tell us that Euronymous was encouraging of Dead's suicide, but in the film we see Euronymous emotional about it, and uncomfortable with a lot of Dead's antics.

Once Dead departs from the film, we are taken swiftly into the Varg/Euronymous dynamic.  I really appreciated that the look and feel of Helvete and most of the character aesthetics were pretty authentic.  I bought that these kids were living this lifestyle, and the wardrobe didn't look like Halloween costumes.  Emory Cohen, who plays Varg, may have been miscast. He was great as baby Varg, but when we are supposed to be afraid of him and he is entering villain territory, I had a hard time finding him as mildly sociopathic as Varg actually may be. However, one of the best scenes in the film is seeing the journalists interview Varg in his home, that he quickly decorates with blackout curtains and swastikas, while practicing saying "I am Greifi Grishnack."  The journalist cleverly points out to an unprepared Varg that he's Pagan, Satanist and Nazi...? This leads to Varg's first arrest, and his transformation to villain. The tension builds between characters as antics go from burning down centuries-old churches to murder.  Varg begins burning down churches to get street cred and persuading others, including Euronymous, to join him.

The dynamic between villain and sympathetic hero in this film are confusing.  I found myself forgetting that Culkin was Euronymous, and not just a metal guy with an ego and a secretly kind heart. From my research and hearing personal accounts of those who knew him, Euronymous was kind of a dick (for lack of a better term...).  Painting this picture of him as a guy who just wants to be famous may be fairly inaccurate.  I genuinely think he absolutely believed in what he was preaching (if incoherent at times...), and took pleasure in playing puppet master while his buddies committed crimes in the name of Black Metal.

Another element that took me out of the movie was the producers seemingly shoe-horning a romance for Euronymous to make him more relatable and to make his emotional arc from nihilistic kid to maturing adult more believable.  However, Sky Ferreira's character, photographer Ann-Marit, added little to the overall story and was barely even a character at all.  She existed solely to get naked and make Euronymous seem more human.  In fact, there is a scene where Varg insists she get naked for both him and Euronymous, which she reluctantly obliges, and it's not entirely clear why. She also looks exceptionally out of place for this being a movie set in late 80's and early 90's Norway.  She has an LA, Silverlake hipster look and voice that took me out of the movie every time she was on screen.  She is also the catalyst for Euronymous cutting his hair and putting on a button down shirt right before Varg comes to have a little, er...chat. (One thing I didn't know is that Euronymous actually did cut his hair the night before he was killed.)

All of a sudden, Varg is completely a villain and begins to stab Euronymous (listen, we all knew this was coming), and takes a break for a glass of milk. The murder scene is long, and drawn out, and we feel and hear every one of the 23 stab wounds inflicted by Varg.  The death scene, like Dead's suicide and Faust's murder of a stranger in Lillehammer, are handled well and beautifully uncomfortable to watch.  The point of these death scenes is not to be gory or "brutal," but to show the reality that a life is being taken.  At this point in the movie, I'm still seeing Cohen's Varg as an awkward outsider, and have a hard time believing his cold demeanor while he's dealing blows to Euronymous.  We later see cops chasing Varg in the street and arresting him, while he looks like a scared child.  It is not at all the Varg I know who smiled when the judge gave him his 21 year sentence.

One thing completely absent from the film is the bigotry that Euronymous preached (and that Varg would later preach).  There is no mention, except a homophobic slur and swastika banners, of the racism, homophobia, and general non-tolerance of early Black Metal figures.  The film does a great job of humanizing Euronymous but at the expense of the reality that Euronymous was kind of a dick. Listen, I'm not Varg making a YouTube video about how awful this movie is from my van.  There were things I enjoyed about it, and things that I really didn't.  I will probably give this a rewatch, but it didn't add anything to ongoing conversation about Black Metal, and it didn't get into anything deeper than surface level stuff.  There was no exploration of why this musical genre may have been born at this time in this place, and why these things culminated into such chaos.

In conclusion:

The Good

  • The best thing about this movie was Rory Culkin and he may actually have been too charming for his own good.  
  • The death scenes were beautifully shot and as uncomfortable to watch as they should have been. They were also respectful.
  • The soundtrack was great and we go to hear actual Mayhem songs which I didn't think we would.
  • The characters (except for Dead and his wig) looked like Black Metal guys.
  • The sense of humor this film had, while also not making it a joke.

The Bad 

  • "Poor Euronymous"
  • Sky Ferreira and the most unnecessary on-screen romance of all time.  If you're going to make up a female character for this era, at least make her a multi-dimensional human that actually adds to this story.
  • Jack Kilmer's wig (Jack Kilmer in general)
  • Euronymous being reborn as a "normal" guy at the end, and essentially being saved from Black Metal.
  • There was essentially nothing new that this film added to the conversation.  
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