This film has, perhaps inevitably, given the infamy of the black metal band it portrays, garnered a glut of criticism since its release. Die-hard metal-heads, members of the original Nordic Death-metal scene, anti-self-harm advocates and pearl clutching religious types alike have all come forward to criticise and condemn Jonas Åkerlund’s portrayal of one of the most notorious and mysterious bands in history: Mayhem.
The film, as I learned from an introductory speech at the Fright Fest screening, was fairly hard for programmers to get their hands on – and much excitement and controversy surrounded the screening itself. A packed theatre of Glaswegian metal aficionados full of beer and solidarity hurled pithy but amicable jokes at the preceding advert’s lack of sound and seemed genuinely excited to be so connected to the subject matter of what they were about to see.
This is all very appropriate given that the film chronicles the sordid beginnings of black metal, which descended upon a startled Nordic public in the early 1990s; borne of young maladjusted metal-heads’ desire to desecrate the sanctity of religion, the stability of conformity and the innocence of the planet’s youth.
This film really is Mayhem. In many ways. It crams in grisly, graphic crimes and depictions of self-harm and suicide which agonisingly play out in real time. It also touches on the darkness of Nazism and extreme sexism. Replete with multiple church burning scenes, LORDS OF CHAOS is rife with general satanic hijinks. However it’s also irrepressibly goofy and chortle-inducing. It captures the sardonic attitude of metal – and wider youth – culture. It is touching at times too – especially if you know someone who loves metal, like me. The characters are at times relatable in this sense, but are unconvincing to the point of abysmally failing to do the subject matter and real people justice.
This is down to the simplistic and often cheesy script and direction, which turns what could be a gold mine of fascinating conversation and human interaction into some pretty hackneyed Hollywood clichés and weak parodies. Åkerlund has chosen to reduce very complex people, lives and issues to cheap tokens to the detriment of the film’s overall quality. For example, characters huff like Rick à la The Young Ones, professing their burning desire to rail against Christianity, which “oppresses [them] with kindness and goodness,” reducing the nuanced and fascinating – if incomprehensible – ideologies and grievances of real people for audiences with short-attention spans. Similarly Sky Ferreira’s trite and mawkish role as the supportive girlfriend feels all the more wrong and hollow for knowing that her real-life counterpart was in fact a young teenager, her boyfriend in his late twenties with the truth of their troubled dynamic still unknown.
As much as I appreciated the experience of looking into the acid-washed denim beginnings of metal and the starkly beautiful shots of the Norway itself, I struggled not to cringe as it veered into parody and made assumptions and excuses about and for its real subjects. I was also disappointed to find that the soundtrack did not feature Mayhem’s raw, lo-fi recordings – or many other defining black metal bands of the era beyond Bathory (and found instead a lot of Sigur Rós to flesh out emotional scenes).
Despite this, the film will surely introduce a new audience to the genre, the wild story of Mayhem and the strange relationship black metal shares with ethnic European paganism. Åkerlund remarked that it felt like the right time for this film, and he is probably right. As right-wing populism gains momentum and support, sub-cultures which have been historically been host to such ideologies must address the skeletons in their cultural closet. The film has flaws, but at least the real Varg Vikernes is still sitting somewhere stewing about being played by a dude named Cohen.