As a general rule, biopics fall one step below porn in film hierarchy. They purport to tell factual stories about real people and events, while brazenly changing significant elements for convenience and dramatic effect. All as if the caveat of “based on” absolves the filmmakers of accuracy. It’s not what happened; it’s some writer’s interpretation of what happened. Unfortunately, many people watching the film will not realize this, thus doing a disservice to both the viewer and the person whose life has been exploited for the sake of profit. Hell, at least we know the people in the porn are lying. Jonas Åkerlund’s Lords of Chaos follows suit, offering a myriad of inaccuracies in a shameful attempt to be edgy.
In mid-80s Norway, guitarist Øystein Aarseth, aka Euronymous (Rory Culkin), led a metal band called Mayhem. They were gaining momentum when an enigmatic Swedish vocalist, Per Yngve Ohlin, aka Dead (Jack Kilmer), joined the group and pushed them to the next level. Sadly, Dead had some serious mental issues and brutally killed himself with a shotgun after a few years with the band, prompting Euronymous to capitalize on the tragedy by taking pictures of the body, allegedly making necklaces from his skull fragments and spreading a rumor that he ate some of his bandmate’s brain. Euronymous then opened a record store called Helvete, which became a focal point of the burgeoning Norwegian black metal scene. Here, Kristian Vikernes, aka Varg (Emory Cohen), met Euronymous and the two became frenemies. Euronymous released Varg’s music as Burzum while Varg joined Mayhem as bassist. Ultimately, everything spiraled out of control with church burnings and murder, culminating Euronymous’ death at the hands of Varg.
“…prompting Euronymous to capitalize on the tragedy by taking pictures of the body, allegedly making necklaces from his skull fragments…”
That’s the film’s version.
You would think a real biopic would take the time to capture a groundbreaking musical movement and really dig into the personalities of those who created it, as well as those who lost their lives for it. Instead, Åkerlund takes a cue from the 1998 book that “inspired” the film, an acknowledged faulty source, and focuses on the controversy that surrounded it while caring little for historical accuracy. For example, the film indicates that Dead was the first singer of Mayhem. He was not, and they had already released an album, Deathcrush, the year before he joined. Also, Varg comes across as a sniveling fanboy struggling to impress Euyronymous when in fact he was well-known on the scene and had already been in several bands before starting Burzum.
On that note, Varg’s extreme politics, like his genuine Nazism, are heavily watered down in a deliberate attempt to not be too offensive. Basically, it’s a film made by people who know nothing about black metal based on a book by people who weren’t there for people who care little about what it all meant and just want to see arson and stabbings.
“…why not use the events as a basis for a fictional story…”
As for the acting, Culkin gives a decent performance as Euronymous, though with little actual footage to go on, it’s difficult to judge how well he captured the guitarist’s mannerisms. Unfortunately, he annoyingly narrates through the entire film like a smug, entitled teenager, causing a drastic plummet in his likeability. Cohen’s Vikernes is way off, played like a sleazy, whining moron. As detestable and batshit crazy as Varg is, he is none of those things, and the real man is far more dangerous than this caricature lets on. Most disappointingly, Kilmer’s Dead is reduced to the anecdotes of his “weirdness” without ever eliciting his truly sorrowful essence, perhaps captured best in a sad smile at the beginning of a band rehearsal video.
Of course, the argument can be made that a film is a work of art, which grants extended artistic license. Fine, then why not use the events as a basis for a fictional story rather than deliver unabashed inaccuracy in the name of art? The consequences can be drastic. You know that story about people thinking the Earth was flat when Columbus sailed to the new world? Not true. Washington Irving made it up to create drama in his historical novel The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, and now it’s taught in school. Think about that the next time you’ve taken in by a biopic.
Lords of Chaos (2019) Directed by Jonas Åkerlund. Written by Dennis Magnusson and Jonas Åkerlund. Starring Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Jon Øigarden, Valter Skarsgård, Anthony De La Torre and Wilson Gonzalez.
3 out of 10 stars